Picks and Pans Review: A Natural Curiosity

updated 09/25/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/25/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Margaret Drabble

In 1987 Drabble published The Radiant Way, her first novel in seven years. It was clunky and confusing, instilled with more whine than wit—a fortysomething for the British professional class. In the way that superior movie sequels sometimes follow bad originals, A Natural Curiosity pulls together the same set of characters for a picture of modern life that is clearheaded, honest, unsettling and engrossing.

Drabble's protagonists, Cambridge chums Liz, Alix and Esther, are now anchored firmly (if pudgily) in middle age, yet they retain their youthful quirks. Liz, a psychotherapist who apparently has come to terms with her husband's decision to bolt into the arms of a horse-faced aristocrat, is still comically incapable of analyzing her own past. No matter. Soon enough, that past announces itself, barreling with pigheaded force into a punch-swilling party tossed by the notorious Fanny Kettle. ("She was a nymphomaniac, a good old-fashioned nymphomaniac, but so what? That was Ian Kettle's view of his wife.") Before a chance encounter at that party, Liz's interest in her family had been minimal—her curiosity was only slightly piqued by the suicide of her brother-in-law and the disappearance of her sister, his wife.

Violence—from sharp-tongued dinner-table disputes to the specter of Middle East hostages—ripples relentlessly through these characters' stories. But none so willingly brushes against modern brutality as Alix, contented wife and mother, satisfied secretary to a blustering literary legend—and dutiful visitor to the now-incarcerated man responsible for the Harrow Road Horrors, a series of London murders in which female victims were neatly beheaded. As for Esther, she has fled to Bologna, where she must choose between Robert ("She cannot decide whether marrying Robert would be taking a risk or throwing in the sponge") and her current roommate, a "fully paid-up, radical-feminist-lesbian-Marxist."

What's a girl—or rather, a frumpy, middle-aged scholar—to do? As in Radiant Way, poor Esther is left dangling. Drabble's sympathy lies with Liz, although her point of view seems to rest with a minor character, the solicitor Clive Enderby. "People want to believe in an ordered, regular world, of faithful married couples, legitimate children, normal sex, legal behaviour, decent continuity," he reflects, "and they will go to almost any lengths to preserve this faith. Any suggestion that 'real life' is otherwise tends to be greeted as 'melodramatic' or 'implausible.' Solicitors know better." So does Margaret Drabble. (Viking, $19.95)

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