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Book Reviews : Emerging Problem of Caste and Class

January 23, 1986|CAROLYN SEE

Clara's Heart by Joseph Olshan (Arbor House: $15.95)

It's too bad that there isn't a better word than trendy. There should be a word that says, yes, there is something new happening in society, and yes, here is a work of art that recognizes that trend, and says something significant about it.

"Clara's Heart" addresses itself to what may seem at first to be a purely middle-class problem, but that is because the middle class is both articulate and blinkered. It is an emerging American problem of caste and class. Several years ago, during the commercial break of a local talk show, the charming woman-host said, "I'm beside myself with worry. My husband and I discovered just this week that our son cannot speak English! He's spent too much time with our Guatemalan maid!" Another woman journalist describes herself as unable to lunch because she's beleaguered by "nanny-problems." And on a recent university panel a young female scientist described herself as not worried about the children she plans to have, because she doesn't expect "to be at the center of their universe."

It's all too easy to see this as a problem of upward mobility; or "orphaned" children who have well-dressed ghosts for parents; children who, just as they begin to love the lady who hugs and feeds them, have her snatched away--by passport irregularities, or visas that run out, or uninformed officials from immigration, or by their mother, who often isn't terribly happy to have another woman in the house, loved more than she is.

Facts of Life

But what about those women who lavish love, attention, even grumpiness, on children, and are never seen, except in the roughest, two-dimensional terms by the families that they serve? How are they to find the nourishment of human relationships, how can their hearts keep from being crushed in the trade that goes on from house to house as children grow up, couples divorce, and their own lives fade and crack from lack of attention? These have always been facts of life in colonial or caste societies like England, or, more sadly, South Africa; now this new loneliness is another thread inexorably woven into the fabric of American life.

Young David Hart lives in the East Coast suburb of Rye with his mother, Leona, and his father, Bill. David's life seems pretty good for his first 8 years--sure, he's got a weight problem, and he's scared to join the school swim team for fear he might fail, and yes, his father appears to live and die for golf, and always has his son out taking lessons, but these are inconveniences, not problems. Then David's infant sister dies; his mother suffers a nervous breakdown; his father is completely unable to cope with such major suffering and sends his wife south to recover at a Jamaican resort.

There Leona Hart meets Clara Mayfield, a spunky, smart-mouthed woman in her 50s who has the quality of being alive, and it is this quality--in such short supply in the house in Rye--that impels Leona, almost on impulse, to ask Clara to come on up; to be their maid, to be company for David.

Of course the reader sees, Leona and Bill see, Clara and even David see, that divorce is inevitable. The Hart family has been sent skidding off the turntable of life; each is helpless to do anything about it. Bill escapes to more golf; Leona takes up with a guru and spends several nights a week away from home. Clara and David, bound by the imperative that humans, together, must love somebody, form an improbable relationship.

This really is a love that cannot speak its name because it doesn't even have a name. David and Clara are far more than friends; they are best friends, they banter and joke and get mad at each other and make up; they literally speak the same language--David learns to speak Jamaican patois so well that he fools Clara's friends on the phone: in a few years, when the Harts finally separate, David spends the night at Clara's Brooklyn apartment; she's become that much of a family friend.

'Fallen Angel'

But Clara can't be David's mother--and even though there's this great physical attraction between them--she obviously can't be his lover either. The unlikely pain is taunted by Clara's Jamaican friends. David begins to realize that Clara isn't referred to as a "fallen angel" by them for nothing; that dreadful things have occurred in her past--tragedies that are as bad, even worse, than his own. He wants to know, has to know, about the woman who means more to him than his mother and father combined, but even David is afflicted with the blinkered, white-middle-class mentality that's ready to deal out affection to the servants, but only on its terms, and according to its standards.

Inevitably, Clara and David separate (although the world insists on seeing this separation as a divorce between white parents, and "Clara" simply part of a black, invisible background). Love is not honored when serious things like property settlements, alimony and second marriages come up.

There are those who might say that cocaine is new, or the sexual revolution, or military spending, but it is in relationships like this that we will reap the real whirlwind, and young Joseph Olshan is astute enough to see it.

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