Picks and Pans Review: Other Women

updated 11/12/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/12/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Lisa Alther

As absorbing and touching as it often is, this novel is so overlong and sloppy that it's tempting to reverse the Queen's admonition to Polonius in Hamlet and say, less matter with more art, please. Alther, author of Kinflicks and Original Sins, has created two humane, likable characters. Caroline, an emergency-room nurse in a small New Hampshire town, is 35, divorced, mother of two young sons, a lesbian and suicidal. Hannah, a psychotherapist in her 50s, lost two of her children in an accident but has brought that memory under control and established her life and career. Caroline goes into therapy with Hannah, and most of the novel's 336 pages are devoted to their sharp, funny, dynamic exchanges. Alther's writing can be captivating. At one point Caroline, worried that she'll lose Hannah's concern, muses, "Probably Hannah was like the plumber, and would stick around only until the drains cleared." And, "She was tired of living hand-to-mouth sexually, never knowing where her next feel was coming from." There are a lot of unhappy distractions, though. One is Alther's female chauvinism. The male characters in the book are written off; only Hannah's husband is something other than a wimp or super-macho type, and he's elderly and harmless. More annoying is the bad editing. Idle repetitions are frequent; among other things, Alther uses the analyst-plumber allusion twice, somebody has a dream every three pages or so, and twice in two pages she describes the same character as having "sad, dark eyes." Her writing can be sophomoric: "Caroline sorted through the canceled checks in her memory bank." In quantity, such gaffes become mood-shattering. If a writer's use of language isn't to be trusted, what of her ideas? (Knopf, $15.95)

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