Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Shriek Heard through a Wall

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Shriek Heard through a Wall

Article excerpt

IN lesser hands, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's novel "Poet and Dancer" would read like a soap-opera episode on that fashionable malady, codependency.

Bruised children of divorce, first cousins Angel and Lara are polar opposites of each other. Angel delights her family with poems written in the snug solitude of her room. Will-o'-the-wisp Lara exasperates her kin.

Where Angel is contemplative, Lara is all action and impulse. From her youth she dreams of being a dancer because it allows her to justify and express her constant mood changes. Yet Lara lacks the discipline to persevere in dance class.

As in Jhabvala's other writing, there is an inexorable quality to "Poet and Dancer." Foreboding hangs over this pair like a dangling chandelier. You know from the start that there is going to be a big, noisy crash.

Some readers will recognize Jhabvala as the author of many novels about India or the screenwriter for the Merchant-Ivory film duo who produced such fare as "A Room with a View" and "Howard's End." In "Poet and Dancer," however, as in her 1983 novel "In Search of Love and Beauty," she concentrates on the lives of German refugees in New York. (Jhabvala is of German-Jewish heritage.)

While they are economically comfortable and professionally successful, the expatriates in her stories never achieve the luxuriousness nor the self-assurance of their European existence.

Angel and Lara are intimidated by life in New York City during the 1970s. The city's hubbub unsettles Angel, and she is happiest ensconced in a top-floor room of her mother's house, writing poetry. Throughout the novel, Jhabvala inserts cacophonous street noises as a kind of sound track reflecting the discord in Angel's spirit.

Angel's hankering for approval leads her to ethical paralysis. She agrees to abet Lara's adultery with Angel's father, Peter. Obviously no homebody, Lara is nonetheless vulnerable and readily wounded by the world she so impetuously engages. …

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