Picks and Pans Review: Modus Vivendi

updated 08/27/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/27/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Deirdre Levinson

Queenie, the narrator of this vivid first novel, is a teacher of Shakespeare's sonnets in a New York college. She, her husband and small daughter are traumatized by the death from heart failure of the family's infant son. In a gush of prose Queenie describes her whole life, from her childhood in England to her meeting with Eli (her husband-to-be), the birth of their daughter, Eli's terrible addiction to uppers and downers, and his fear of failure. The picture of a woman so depressed that she is immobilized is unforgettable, but Modus Vivendi is—amazingly for such dark subject matter—often comic. Levinson packs her story with telling incidents and graphic events, and the novel—as in a Cynthia Ozick or Isaac B. Singer story—is permeated by the Jewish experience. Unlike Ozick or Singer, however, Levinson never goes for myth-making. She is as down to earth, as blackly humorous, as Philip Roth or Saul Bellow. Queenie's psychiatrist, for example, can make an important point by saying, "It can be very moving to see a woman showing an interest in life again by shaving her legs." Modus Vivendi is a powerful, richly detailed evocation of a woman's life. (Viking, $13.95)

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