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Book Review : Seebohm Novel: What Goes On Here?

November 10, 1986|CAROLYN SEE

The Last Romantics by Caroline Seebohm (Macmillan: $16.95)

How does a distressing novel like this get written? How does it get published? What will people think when they read it? How will it affect the career of Caroline Seebohm--who's usually a wonderful writer? Who's the culprit here?

How could this happen?

Boy ! This is a misconceived book. Or, more accurately, a twisted, screwy one, so full of contradictions it never really gets started (or finished either). The trouble begins with the title, "The Last Romantics." No one, not one person in this narrative, is in the least romantic, in any sense. The trouble continues with the novel's supposed genre . The publicity blurb bills this as "a beautifully written first novel in the popular tradition of "The Group" and "Superior Women." But those two novels were serious examinations (under their glossy exteriors) of feminine friendships, of "higher" education for females, and the position of so-called privileged women in their society. Both those novels were full of fury and indignation about the broken promises implicit in education itself, and the emotional emptiness of the lives that came after that education. Both those novels also gave us characters that lived; that stuck in our memory. Those friendships, in their give-and-take, and even in their failures, were relationships we cared about.

An Unanswered Question

Here, in "The Last Romantics," we have four Oxford female undergraduates. There's Alice, of good family but comparatively little money, who's the main narrator. There's Louisa--and here I must pause. I finished the book yesterday and I don't remember a damn thing about Louisa, except that she "lives for love," that she marries the hero, or anti-hero of this story, Edmund Wales, the flower of Oxford, the best man in their class or any other class etc., etc. After Edmund kills himself, Louisa gets a breast augmentation operation, even though she knows she'll never find another man. Her maiden name is Better. ("Better than what?" is a natural question, never answered here.)

Penny Coverdale is the third member of this group. She comes from a very rich manufacturing family and marries an aristocrat who later takes up with three young men: "Penny Coverdale," she muses, "finally in control. How awful it sounds. Some dyke-type lady in a tie, pulling strings to make people jump. I wonder if they all think that of me now." Well, Penny, I doubt if they do, because I read very, very carefully and outside of inviting those girls to sit by you for a meal, I never caught you doing one thing that controlled your fate or anyone else's, unless you think that marrying a homosexual aristocrat, having four children and then getting a job in an art gallery is manipulative and controlling. . . .

Every group like this has to have a "ditsy" blonde, and here Daphne Fanthorpe fills that unenviable position. Poor Daphne marries an unattractive working-class English playwright, and then an unattractive tennis-playing American millionaire, thus spanning the hemispheres and the social spectrum, but managing never to have fun with any of it. She also goes to California in the late '60s and early '70s, where she gets "into" sex and drugs, so many drugs that--by her own account--her brain turns into a thick white sauce. (And yet she miraculously recovers and soon begins to talk and think exactly like her Oxford girlfriends.)

More Trouble

Which brings up another trouble here. Seebohm has picked a narrative strategy that literally cripples this novel, making it almost impossible for the author to set up a scene or get decent dialogue going or even move along the plot. The story is told in a series of first-person monologues; each member of this foursome recalling what happened from one to 20 years ago. This presents the obvious difficulty of distancing all the action, but it also points up Seebohm's greatest weakness as a novelist: All these women sound exactly the same, so the reader has to keep irritably flipping back and forth to see just who is remembering what.

There's also the matter of tone. This is far less kin to books like "Superior Women" or "The Group" than it is related to Christopher Isherwood's "Lions and Shadows," or E .M. Forster's "'The Longest Journey" or even W. Somerset Maugham's "Of Human Bondage." These are all university memoirs. But when Seebohm has a male character opine that all of English education is based on Aristotelian logic--and therefore prepares the best students only for suicide--can she truly be leveling with her reader? Was Oxford that bad? For men as well as women?

Finally, is this book social satire or not? Some of the memories of these four women are elegiac and quite lovely (the evocation of New York City on the Bicentennial Fourth of July is serious and very sweet). But then come some long and terribly awkward chapters when Seebohm appears to take the young Evelyn Waugh as her model, and would seem to frame whole chapters of "The Last Romantics" as a kind of latter-day "Vile Bodies." And that's the last straw, really, having to read pages and pages of "funny stuff" that doesn't even make you smile.

Where was the editor for this? Didn't anyone have the nerve to tell Caroline Seebohm that she's a brilliant non -fiction writer--as her graceful biography of Conde Nast so definitively proves? Finally, it's the novelist herself who appears to have been treated most unfairly.

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