Picks and Pans Review: An American Love Story

updated 10/01/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/01/1990 01:00AM

by Rona Jaffe

Where to begin? Do you criticize this novel's idiotic plot, the lame characterizations, or the dreadful writing?

Maybe it's best to begin with a bit of history. Nearly 40 years ago, in her first novel, The Best of Everything Jaffe introduced three young women with an unerring instinct for choosing the wrong men. Bachelorette No. 1, a magazine editor, hooked up first with her impotent boss, then with her former boyfriend who had since married. Bachelorette No. 2. a beautiful girl fresh off the farm, allied herself with a petulant stockbroker who passed her to his friends when he'd deflowered her. Bachelorette No. 3. an actress, fell for a heartless director whose garbage she began collecting for keepsakes when their affair ended and who was indirectly responsible for her death.

An American Love Story, on the other hand, concerns three women, all involved with the SAME lousy guy: golden-boy TV executive Clay Bowen. Actually, it's four women if you count Clay's daughter Nina.

Here's the story on Clay: He grew up in Connecticut, helping his father out in the family liquor store. Understandably, Clay wanted more for himself and "had suspected for a long time that he had a way about him.... Partly it was his smile, which transformed his looks...." He also had a "talent for changing the truth.... Sometimes, if it was necessary for his career, he was quite aware he was lying. But even then, there was a sincerity about him, because a part of him wanted so much to believe what he was saying, wanted it to be true."

One of the big problems with An American Love Story is that while Jaffe seems to believe she has created a charmingly seductive heel in Clay, she never convinces the reader. Thus, it's hard to understand why his wife, Laura, a former ballerina, fell so hard for him—or why, when he left her, she became a prescription-drug addict. It's hard to understand why bright, independent writer Susan checks into a mental institution when she learns he has left her for another woman; why, because of him, his adolescent daughter tries to kill herself.

Further, there is something absurdly antediluvian about the message Jaffe is sending in this novel. As a matter of fact it's the same message she tapped out in The Best of Everything: Men are universally vile; women exist to be their hapless victims.

There is barely a male in An American Love Story who has redeeming qualities. The women, on the other hand, are for the most part smart, talented, loving, eager to please—and brutalized for their trouble. The overheated prose doesn't help matters, either. It could be that Jaffe was simply writing a parody. Unfortunately, An American Love Story isn't nearly funny enough for that. (Delacorte, $19.95)

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