The Perfect Sonya by Beverly Lowry (Viking: $16.95; 241 pages)
In a conversation, the normal answer to "Tell me about yourself" is to talk about an occupation, or a childhood, or a marriage, or a packet of problems. For a novelist, the job is different.
Fictional characters, unlike people, do not exist until written about. They won't come alive simply by assigning them problems or childhoods or dreams or occupations. They come alive by mysterious means; possibly a gesture, or a phrase or a long nose. But until they do, these other things are adjectives without nouns to color. The skinned knee needs a knee.
A Freudian Symbol?
We meet Pauline--the perfect Sonya of Beverly Lowry's novel--through her recurring bad dream of a slimy man chasing her, through the memory of a stuffed bear that her nasty tinpot tyrant of a father tried to force her to pose with, and through her friends' later speculations as to whether the bear was a Freudian phallic symbol or a Jungian archetype.
Lowry is very good at the awfulness of Pauline's childhood. Her relations with Henry, her father, are a precise blend of the trivial laced with nightmare. He fondles her sexually. He has a fetid and short-fused willfulness.
The family vacations are a succession of ambitious trips that are aborted the second or third day out, when Henry blows up over some disappointment or imagined slight. "Vacations never worked out, never," Pauline reflects. While they lasted, they were scenery imposed through the car windows. "Scenery was nothing. Nothing happened in scenery."
That puts wonderfully well the burden that family holidays place on unhappy children. But nothing else in the book emerges as clearly.
Pauline moves along in thin fashion, at a distance from herself. She is a series of half-hearted ventures and relinquishments. She becomes an actress whose closest approach to triumph was to get several enthusiastic reviews in an off-Broadway production of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya." She was "The Perfect Sonya," one critic wrote.
Sonya--the quiet, devoted figure who stands by the shattered Vanya at the end, offering him the consolation of the faithful--is what Pauline never manages to be, at least for most of the book. There is no steadfastness; she does not hold on to things.
She marries a domineering and unsuccessful writer but evades commitment by a series of affairs. It is a recapitulation of her relationship with her father; and, like much else in the book, it is more tidy than useful. Instead of pursuing her acting career with any real intensity, she earns her living by undressing down to a mermaid costume and swimming in a tank at a raunchy bar. Another all-too-well-signaled evasion.
The book's main thread is Pauline's encounter with the only man who really moves her. He is her aunt's former husband, in his 60s, who lives an independent, semi-reclusive life on a Texas farm and writes about the environment.
Affair With Uncle
Their affair, which takes place during a brief visit she makes to him, seems parched. He, like she, is a self-denier. After a rainstorm and flash flood, she leaves, apparently no more affected than in her other relationships.
Only apparently. She will visit her uncle four years later at a new farm he has moved to. He is an old man by now. The second visit is even dryer and stonier than the first one; much of it consists of an obsessively detailed tour of the house and land. Uncle and niece reach toward each other, but not at the same time. The conclusion is not a renewal of the affair, but, for Pauline, it begins a kind of moral commitment.
It is her first one. With her aging uncle she becomes--the reader has no alternative but to notice--the perfect Sonya.
Lowry is good at description and at what limited physical action her book contains. In every other respect, though, Pauline's story is painfully schematic. A whole section is devoted to her psychoanalysis with a Dr. Loving, and to the consolation she finds with her cat.
Fictionally speaking, psychoanalysis and cats tend to be non-events--make a feline exception for Colette--along with dreams, parties and suburbanites having breakfast.