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Book Review : Burdened With a Metaphor Gone Mad

April 06, 1987|CAROLYN SEE

Tangled Vines by Mary Jane Roberts (Mercury House: $16.95)

This is the kind of book that's very sad and hard to review. The reason is that the reviewer ends up being the one to bear bad news that should have been borne before; addressing problems that should have already been taken care of before the publication process. Editors or friends should have told the author something--since it goes without saying that when a novelist finishes his or her work, he or she has done the very best that he or she can do. Then it falls to the next set of people to raise questions about the text. Sometimes feelings can get hurt, but the sooner they're hurt, the sooner mended. It shouldn't be the reviewer who has to do this.

"Tangled Vines" is a story about the chain of affection (and its opposite) between mother and daughter. It is the story of Lonnie, age 61, and her daughter, Jill, who, during the course of the novel, will have a daughter of her own. "Tangled Vines" is also the story of how "Lonnie's struggle with Jill ultimately leads her to confront her alcoholism, her mortality, her sexuality and her art." And also, "Tangled Vines" contains the wildest combination of symbols to come down the pike in a coon's age.

What "Tangled Vines" has is an initially good idea that can't go forward because of technical monkey wrenches that have been thrown into the mechanics of the narrative.

The problems start with the central character of Lonnie. We're asked to accept this woman as a very heavy-duty alcoholic, one who hides rafts of empty bottles around the house; who polishes off quarts of Scotch at one sitting, who almost succumbs to alcoholic hepatitis, who throws up and blacks out night after night, but who still is extremely beautiful, has a devoted circle of friends, and two men besides her husband who are madly in love with her.

Hard to Believe

Lonnie also maintains an elaborate dream house with a (symbolically heavy) dream garden. Lonnie is so irresponsible that she lets the phone disconnect rather than pay the bill, but so responsible that she "rescues" Constance, a stroke victim in her 70s, from the hospital (where Lonnie has been checked in after going on a spectacular drunk). The reader is asked to believe that with everything else going on, Constance is conscientiously taken care of all through this story by Lonnie. To make a long story short, the central character here is a tangled vine of her own, a set of contradictions that are never resolved.

It says on the jacket that Mary Jane Roberts is a playwright, and so it becomes more than usually depressing to be the one who has to point out that the dialogue in many places here is bone-shatteringly bad. One of the men who loves Lonnie is a short Greek artist named Nikos. The poor man is forced to speak in sentences that surpass description: "Ah, you wake!" he says to Lonnie after she comes home from a drunken bout. "So long you sleep now, I worry. But look! . . . lovely as child opening eyes on morning."

Why , someone should have asked the author, why do you need all these interlocking extraneous symbols? Don't you trust the story to carry itself? For symbols, we've got interlocking hands: Nikos paints his car with interlocking hands, Lonnie (who has been a "doll," a housewife all her life, except that she has major art shows and is emerging as a world-class talent) paints two hands touching to celebrate her feelings for Nikos, and at an AA meeting, everyone joins hands. (We're reminded of all this at the end of the book just in case it has escaped us.) We've also got the universal elements in a big way, so that Lonnie's best friend Margo (created just so she can make pronouncements like this), is forced to remark: "Jill in a nest . . . somehow that seems appropriate. If you're earth and Nikos is sea, Jill is air, full of ideas, floating somewhere above in an intellectual mist." "And Daniel is fire," Lonnie says in answer, but the point about elements has already been repeatedly made.

And of course there's the motif of the "missed moments," and the concept of "letting go." Every character in this book "lets go," or exhorts someone else to "let go." Talk about your tangled vines! This story is struggling to get out here, even the characters are struggling to talk like regular normal people instead of "We were like Hansel and Gretel after the birds had eaten their path of crumbs. The wicked witch had gotten us, and we were afraid." (That's the best friend again, confessing an affair with the love of Lonnie's life.) But nothing moves; all is clumsy artifice, choked to death by--if you will--the vines of heavy-handed symbolism, characters who by their nature are no more than cardboard figures in an allegory of Lonnie's Life.

Somebody should have spoken to the author about this. Pleaded with her to at least give a civil nod to reality.

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