Picks and Pans Review: Museum Pieces

updated 04/22/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/22/1985 01:00AM

by Elizabeth Tallent

In modern fiction aimlessness is next to godless-ness as a popular theme, and Tallent has created a paradigm of that theme with this first novel. It makes her characters seem even more lost, even more perplexed, that they live not in New York or Los Angeles or Chicago, where such malaise is to be expected, but in the relative wilderness of Santa Fe, N.Mex. (Tallent herself lives near there; she is best known as a New Yorker short story writer.) The novel focuses on Clarissa, a painter, her estranged husband, Peter, a museum archaeologist, and Peter's lover, Mia, a failed dancer. These are all people with serious careers, yet they all seem preoccupied with romance and sex to such a fanatical degree that even Clarissa's and Peter's daughter, Tara, seems an afterthought to them. Worse, the romance and sex seem to have more to do with an escapist search for security than they do with passion. It's possible to like these characters but hard to respect them. Sustaining interest in such people isn't easy. Tallent overwrites at times, describing every shift of gears and every bit of vegetation passed as someone drives along a deserted road. She has a delicate sense of pace, though, and writes with quiet power. At one point Peter tells Tara, who is 13, about how he taught her to dance when she was little, saying, "I know you don't remember this." But Tara, writes Tallent, "pretended to cut into the food on her plate, her knife and fork heavy and cold, the voices around them continuing softly. She didn't tell him he was wrong, that she knew he had taught her to dance in front of the bedroom mirror, that she could remember him lifting her by her arms and waiting until her bare feet landed safely on the toes of his shoes." (Knopf, $14.95)

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