Picks and Pans Review: The Magician's Girl

updated 01/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Doris Grumbach

Here is a skilled novelist (The Ladies, Chamber Music) making a penetrating work of what could have been a bad miniseries idea. Minna, Liz and Maud are roommates at Barnard College in the late '30s. Minna's mother, an Irish immigrant, has turned her daughter into a fearful young woman; Liz's parents are labor agitators; Maud, ugly and fat, wants only to be a poet. Maud's childhood is the most interesting. Her older brother gets polio and wastes away. Her father, an Army man, is absent most of the time. Her mother, a nurse, is fascinated with the Miss America Pageant. Maud eventually attracts a handsome actor, and they marry and have twin sons. Eventually her poems become famous. Minna marries a medical student who becomes a surgeon while she is a professor of history. After 39 years of marriage, she discards the fear that has held her all her life. Liz becomes a famous photographer. Grumbach has done a splendid job of evoking New York at a certain time; her characters' lives are rich in convincing detail. The way Grumbach writes about sex is personal and vivid. One complaint: Her characters echo such real-life people as Diane Arbus, Sylvia Plath and Ezra Pound. Trying to figure out what incident in the novel is based on what incident in real life is a distraction to no purpose. Otherwise The Magician's Girl is all one could ask of contemporary fiction. (Macmillan, $16.95)

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