cover image The Book of Knowledge

The Book of Knowledge

Doris Grumbach. W. W. Norton & Company, $22 (248pp) ISBN 978-0-393-03770-8

The chasm between appearance and reality, between expectations and disillusionment, is the theme of Grumbach's latest novel, whose dark message emerges from the unfulfilled sexual identities of her four characters. None of the four preadolescent youngsters who meet during the summer of 1929 in the town of Far Rockaway, N.Y., will achieve a happy life. Caleb and Kate Flowers, raised by their widowed, reclusive mother in the beachside community, are propelled by their pleasantly claustrophobic existence and their ``twinned sensibility'' to be best friends, and later, innocent explorers of each other's bodies. The fathers of Roslyn Hellman and Lionel Schwartz are wealthy Manhattan stockbrokers who will soon lose their jobs and money in the stock market crash. Grumbach (Coming Into the End Zone) follows these characters episodically during the ensuing 15 years, ``in which the nadir of financial ruin and depression reached the zenith of war and prosperity.'' Their lives, however, never reach a comparable high point. When Caleb and Lionel meet again at Cornell, they recognize their homosexual bond, but Caleb sunders their relationship out of fear that disclosure might ruin his career. Roslyn gets the first glimmers of her lesbian predilection at summer camp (these scenes ring with authenticity), but society confines her to a conventional path. Kate, unable to break her incestuous bond with her brother, subsumes her sexuality in religion. Grumbach tells her story in laconic prose that is most successful in the beginning section, which reads like a fable, but later lapses into some awkwardness (the overuse of the phrase ``could bear no longer'') and some sledgehammer moralizing. As an honest portrayal of self-realization sacrificed to social conventions, however, the book has a visceral impact.(June)