Picks and Pans Review: Rameau's Niece

updated 04/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Cathleen Schine

In the tradition of the lighthearted literary romp a la Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot arrives Rameau's Niece, a novel echoing the witty, erotic tone of Denis Diderot's 18th-century tale Rameau's Nephew.

Schine's protagonist, Margaret Nathan, is a young writer who has become a celebrity for publishing a biography of a little-known 18th-century French anatomist named Madame de Montigny, who wrote a bawdy lexicon of the human body that apparently influenced modern feminist theory. Margaret's success only serves to highlight her codependent marriage to Edward, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University. By taking on the translation of an anonymous French manuscript that goes by the name Rameau's Niece—a sexually libertine work—Margaret expects to sublimate her feelings of personal inadequacy.

But the more she mines the ardor of her translation characters, the more her own life begins to feel gutless by comparison. The result is a hilarious, neurotic jaunt around the island of Manhattan, where, in search of renewed passion, Margaret futilely chases one sexual fantasy after another. Tracking her heroine's follies in this, her third novel. Schine demonstrates an astute ability to sum up modern relationships. "Couples were miraculous, odd, ill-formed things that grew without reason and without grace, like double ears of corn," she writes in high style distinguished by a deft comedic touch. (Ticknor & Fields, $19.95)

From Our Partners