Picks and Pans Review: Alice at 80

updated 08/13/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/13/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by David Slavitt

The subject of this curious novel—the Rev. Charles Dodgson's compulsive need for young girls and its effect on their lives—is perverse, to say the least. The heroine is Alice Liddell, the Alice who inspired Lewis Carroll (aka Dodgson) to write Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. In 1932 Alice, now 80, comes to New York to receive an honorary degree from Columbia to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Carroll's birth. Her whole life has been marked by Carroll's attention to her when she was a child. After her husband's death (he always detested even the mention of Carroll's name), she discovers two other women, an uninhibited actress and a madam, whose lives—and attitudes about men and sex—were deeply colored by their own childhood encounters with Dodgson. The Reverend Mr. Dodgson wanted little girls to pose in the nude while he drew their portraits or took their photographs or had them sit on his lap. What he gave them in return was a form of absolute love, a stunning adoration that lent them a sense of importance and changed them for the rest of their lives. This novel is a kind of meditation on sex and love, with teatime set pieces full of leisurely dialogue. Alice's own son, Caryl, named for Lewis Carroll, is caught up in his mother's past and at the end of the book learns something surprising about his own nature. (The real-life Alice did have a son named Caryl, but the gamier side of this novel comes from Slavitt's imagination, not from any documented evidence of Carroll's sex life.) At one point the actress tells the madam, "The trouble with sex as a primary subject for thought is that almost inevitably it's interesting, but one never gets anywhere." The trouble with sex as a primary subject for a novel is that almost inevitably the reader, long before the end, begins to find it tedious and repetitious. Slavitt has written 10 other novels, including The Exhibitionist, and has also turned out 10 books of poetry. (Doubleday, $14.95)

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