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Christmas Secrets : TIDINGS by William Wharton , (Henry Holt: $17.95; 259 pp.)

November 22, 1987|Larry Heinemann | Heinemann is the author of "Paco's Story" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), recently named the winner of the National Book Award for fiction. and

For his latest novel, "Tidings," William Wharton, author of "Birdie," "Dad," and "A Midnight Clear," uses the tradition and ritual of a family gathering to explore relations between husband and wife, man and woman, parent and child, brother and sister--the whole fabric and weave of a family.

The story itself is remarkably, deceptively simple. Will, a philosophy teacher at the American College in Paris, and his wife, Loretta, have invited their four grown children to celebrate Christmas at their summer place--a 300-year-old mill in the French Morvandeau Valley. The day after Christmas is Will and Lor's 30th wedding anniversary--another significant family ritual celebration. Each member of the family brings abundant presents as well as secrets to share and other secrets to keep. Will decorates the mill with holly, picks up his wife and Ben, the youngest son, born on the eve of Christmas Eve. "Maybe that's why Christmas means so much to us," Will says ruminating. Peg, Nicole, and Mike drive down from Paris bundled up and loaded with presents in the second of Will's rattletrap cars--no heater, windows won't close, bad tires. He's one of those men who are sloppy but methodical.

Will filches a Christmas tree from the woods, brings it back to the mill and sets it up in the hole in the middle of the millstone next to the hearth. The family gathers next to the hearth and decorates the tree, complete with candles instead of modern strings of lights. They pack a picnic lunch and trek off to a cabin where son Mike, itching to get married to a local girl, has been living. There is a birthday party for Ben--another of the bright rituals that surround these Christmas tidings.

On Christmas Eve, the family goes to church in the village, then to a traditional celebration, a reveillon , with the dairy farmers and the local workers and townsfolk. There is much loud music and the hard, wild stomping of the local folk dance.

Everyone comes home to the mill and goes to bed, and one by one they drop off to sleep.

Then William Wharton, as the teller of this story, does something that makes "Tidings" a curious and wonderful book. To pass the time before morning each of the characters steps forward with a dramatic monologue, revealing much more than we have yet learned of who each is, why each has come to the mill for this Christmas, especially, and then something of the secret each carries. It is as if each takes a moment, that moment before the fullest, bundled ease of sleep, to speak to us. And here--in the secrets they tell us--lies the greatness of this novel.

Loretta has had an affair, and the first orgasm of her life. "We come wildly together, we thrash," she says, comparing this to almost 30 years of married life and four children with Will, "I understand for the first time how things like love bites and scratches across the back come about." She goes on recalling the history of her affair with pleasure and relish the way people do and comparing it with her marriage to Will, who is much less demonstrative.

Peg, also called Maggie, remembers past Christmas rituals and her own current troubles with her husband George, agonizing about whether to divorce him and what will happen to their son, Seth.

Mike speculates about his girlfriend Genevieve, her parents' horrible and ugly divorce, and the impact that it will have on her and on him. He wants to get married; he wants to finish school. He is lying in bed with Genevieve as he speaks--the room is quiet, and once she moans and rolls over on her back. He says of her, "She's the kind of person who can take almost any place and make it comfortable and homey. I really do need somebody like that in my life."

Nicole's brief monologue begins when she gets up in the cold and darkened mill to struggle to the bathroom to be sick, her feet numbing from the cold mill stonework. "Boy," she says, struggling down rickety stairs and holding on with both hands, "the combinations of wine and swinging in circles with those cowboys has turned my stomach upside down." She tells us her secret--wanting to have a child by a man named Spike, a sculptor she met in California, who has transformed his desert homestead into a sculpture. She says, somewhat naively, "Having a baby is the ultimate creation; you'd be dumb to get into it without using the best materials possible. I love even imagining what kind of kid he'd make with me." Even though Nicole seems to be sentimental about Spike, she is the most vivacious and "scrappy" of the four children.

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