A Feminist Parable Lady of the Snakes By Rachel Pastan Harcourt. 308 pp. $24.00.
RACHEL PASTAN is a young old-fashioned novelist. Eschewing contemporary fiction's habitual license and eclecticism, she writes instead about courtship, marriage and infidelity. Her debut work, This Side of Married (2004), is a classic romance featuring all of the genre's regulars: an officious, matchmaking mother; a rake who proposes to an ingénue only to abandon her before the wedding; a man and woman who begin as rivals but end as lovers.
In some respects Pastan 's heroines evoke the paradigmatic female of the Romantic era. They are clever, ambitious, and bent on not settling for the ordinary. But they are also more fragile - waylaid by professional disappointment, attending to teething babies, and performing daily domestic chores in the absence of servants and governesses.
"I can see you want everything," Jane Levitsky, the protagonist of Pastan 's new novel, Lady of the Snakes, is told. "Kids, husband, career. The whole superwoman thing." Then the author demonstrates how that inevitably entails a great deal of both the tragic and the ridiculous.
The book begins as Jane is finishing graduate school. Prior to completing her dissertation, she gives birth to a daughter, Maisie. She finds herself spending more time with the baby than with Billy, her husband, and thinks, "now this was her life: nursing and walking, eating cheese and crackers with a free hand. Changing diapers, changing her own milk-soured shirts . . . exhausted and hungry, the baby curled against her chest or latched on to her nipple, which had been stretched so much it looked like a caterpillar."
Pastan 's main virtue is an ability to portray the cyclical nature of married life, as dullness turns into spite and recrimination, then back to tenderness and longing. For even though Jane's relationship with Billy is increasingly strained, she can still think of "the summer. She was determined that the summer would be different: easier, happier, with more time for each other and for Maisie." Marriage is presented as a series of perpetual deferments. One's plans to atone and become a better spouse or parent are seldorn actualized, and lead rather to further resolutions.
Jane's specialty is the fiction of Grigory Karkov and the diaries of his wife, Maria Petrovna Karkova. Karkov was largely forgotten after his death. His revival is due entirely to the scholar Jane succeeds at the University of Wisconsin, Otto Sigelman. Apparently Karkov was a kind of junior Tolstoy. His most respected and widely read novel, Dmitri Arkadyevich, plagiarized Anna Karenina in various ways. It contains long scenes about haying, odes to peasant life, and a man who, like Tolstoy's Levin, watches his wife bravely minister to his dying brother.
Jane is actually more interested in Karkova, and hopes to bring her the same sort of recognition Sigelman won for Karkov. But while studying the diaries she discovers that Karkov stole sentences, images, whole scenes from his wife. She also finds a letter in which Karkova describes undergoing a spell, a period of dementia, when she wandered through the countryside collecting snakes. This recalls the plot of Lady of the Snakes, the title of Karkov's final novel and, in Sigelman 's words, "almost an anticipation of modernism, if you look at it in a certain light."
It is at this point, just as she has found information that could make her a luminary in her field, that Jane's life begins to break apart. When she returns to the library to examine the letter in detail, it is gone. Then, bringing Maisie home early from a swimming lesson, she catches Billy having sex with one of her graduate students. An almost identical episode is the central event in This Side of Married and ends in a divorce. Predictably, however, the eventual outcome the second time around is different, if only for the sake of variation.
Jane leaves Billy at once, though she has nowhere to go except Sigelman's. …