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Book Review : Reading Between the Lines of Mail

February 02, 1988|ELAINE KENDALL

Long Distances by Fabienne Marsh (Summit: $17.95; 240 pages)

You don't need much in the way of setting--an address and a date will do it all. You can skip the tedium of physical description, except for occasional references to a dominant feature; the hero's deep brown eyes, the heroine's loam-colored hair, the dentists's mustache and the childrens' height.

Forget trivia like chapter length and transitions between one section and the next. The epistolary form is wonderfully flexible. If you can send it through the mail, you can include it in the novel--the identifications on the back of picture postcards, the kids' misspellings, assorted quotations from philosophers and poets, invitations to parties--even your apartment lease and your tax returns, if they happen to apply. Subsidiary characters are free to drop in and out with no introduction and no farewell, just like actual correspondents.

Individual Expression

The author need have no worries about consistency of style or point of view; everyone in the book is entitled to an individual mode of expression. Then why are relatively few contemporary novels written as a series of letters, especially since there's something innately appealing about reading other people's mail with no penalty for being found out?

Because the form is a high-risk enterprise. When you eliminate the usual support systems that buttress the novel, you're left with only the emotions and ideas. The writer pays a high price for all those perks. The events in the characters' lives must be remarkably involving, their feelings extraordinarily intense, their thoughts startlingly original to make us want to read their mail. Just the fact that these letters were addressed to someone else doesn't make them automatically riveting. First you have to be interested, for whatever reason, in that someone.

Kate and Michael Hammond met and married when Kate was a student in Michael's poetry class. She's now a documentary film maker; he teaches at Columbia and writes. They're the parents of two young children, Judson and Jeanne. When the novel begins, Michael has just left for a year's sabbatical in London, during which he plans to finish his third book of poems far from the domestic distractions that bedevil him in Pleasantville, N.Y. The letters chronicle that year of enforced separation; the initial passionate declarations of mutual love soon giving way to Kate's litany of frustration, loneliness and professional crises and Michael's elegantly worded but somewhat chilly progress reports. Cute notes from the children are interspersed, enlivening or stalling the action according to the reader's reaction to such digressions.

Old Rival Resurfaces

Bill Stern, Michael's old rival for Kate's affections, resurfaces to interfere in both their lives. A bachelor philosophy professor with a weak foundation in ethics, Bill supplies Michael with the address of an attractive young woman working in London while simultaneously doing his best to comfort Kate in her isolation at home. Though Bill is in the immediate neighborhood, he also communicates with Kate by letter. At first she rebuffs him, but after Michael comes home for a Christmas visit during which it was obvious that he had indeed gotten in touch with the charming Susan Fleet, Kate becomes more receptive to Bill's advances, which have quickly escalated from theoretical to empirical.

The exchanges between London and Pleasantville grow less lyrical and more guarded. Kate learns that managing without Michael may be uncomfortable, but it's good for her character. Her new independence shows in her work, which flourishes as her marriage deteriorates. From time to time, we hear from the Hammond's dentist, their accountant, Kate's outspoken mother, Michael's elderly mentor Robert, their no-nonsense friend Elaine, the childrens' teachers, Kate's employers and Michael's publisher, each of whom is affected in one way or another by the disintegration of the Hammond's marriage.

When the catastrophic sabbatical year ends and Michael returns to New York, he moves out of the suburban house and into a New York apartment. On his own in the city, he reverts to type by romancing a student in his classes, who joins the cast of letter writers with poems of her own. The amount of verse in "Distances" suggests that the author herself may be a poet manque, testing the waters by attributing her verses to her characters.

Matters grow considerably more complicated before they finally resolve into the simplicity with which the book began. An endangered genre ever since the invention of the telephone, the epistolary novel has been enjoying a modest revival within the last few years, "Distances" extending a circle that began with Samuel Richardson's "Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded."

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