Picks and Pans Review: The Truth About Lorin Jones

updated 11/07/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/07/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Alison Lurie

A new novel by the author of The War Between the Tates, Love and Friendship and the Pulitzer prizewinning Foreign Affairs is always cause for celebration. Alas, the celebration for this book should be muted. Polly Alter, like earlier Lurie protagonists, feels that men have done her wrong: "When her husband left 18 months ago, Polly hadn't expected her life to turn out like this. Miserable and angry though she was, she had looked forward to the adventure of being single again. But, as her friends and the media had already warned her, there weren't any good men over 30 in New York, only husbands and creeps." Polly, an artist manqué, has other problems besides the dearth of available men. On leave from her museum curator job, she is struggling to write a biography of Lorin Jones, a painter she reveres for her talent and beauty. It is a case of biographer identifying with subject. The two women grew up, 20 years apart, in neighboring New York suburbs and had lived on the same street in the West Village. Polly is also convinced that Lorin too was done wrong by men—by her half brother, by her father, by the owner of a gallery showing her work, by her art-critic husband, by her lover. In the course of the novel, Polly learns the truth about Lorin—that she was more sinning than sinned against—and is forced to make some tough choices about how to portray her. Polly also learns the truth about herself—like Lorin, she has sinned as often as she was sinned against. The problem is that even inattentive readers will quickly discern the obvious parallels Lurie sets up between biographer and subject. There is also something anachronistic about the novel's concerns. Polly and her lesbian friend Jeanne—the two have a brief affair—talk about men in much the same way Erica Tate and Danielle Zimmern did in The War Between the Tates. The feminist discontent made sense in War, which was set in 1969, the high point of the women's movement. It sounds silly in a novel set in 1987. There are compensations: Lurie's wit—Gore Vidal once dubbed her the Queen Herod of modern fiction—is as sharp as ever: "Yelling at him was like punching the tan beanbag chair in their bedroom; he didn't argue or answer back, only sagged and look deflated." And perhaps mediocre Lurie is better than no Lurie at all. (Little, Brown, $18.95)

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