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What Is a Woman of Value to Do? : ON HER OWN by Naomi Bliven (Grove Press: $18.95; 348 pp.)

July 02, 1989|Artelia Court | Court is a writer and artist who lives in New York

Her publisher says that Naomi Bliven has been writing for about 30 years for The New Yorker, so she's probably been reading it too. That might explain the disjunction between skill and subject matter in this her first novel. "On Her Own" is nicely built, adorned with several gems of worldly wisdom and verbally elegant overall. But Bliven has lavished her talents on a melodrama set in the factitious world of New Yorker advertisements, "Talk of The Town" pieces and those lifeless little drawings of vases at the bottom of the page. She's written a bodice-buster full of people who never get mussed, about a woman whose bust exists mostly to prop up the bodices of a fur-lined autumn ensemble (probably from Bergdorf Goodman), a velvet dinner dress (advertised in last week's issue) or a gilded caftan (definitely Lord & Taylor).

The year is 1975, and pleasantly idle, 32-year-old Alida Kelly, finds herself in an unpleasant position in Los Angeles. Her rich and successful screenwriter husband has started an affair with a vulgar TV actress. What is a woman of value to do? Why, gather up child and nursemaid and catch the first plane back home to Flat Rock, Conn. Flat Rock is just what it sounds like: a strictly zoned village of landscaped estates, country club, private school and Episcopal church--a place where flagrant busts of any kind are frowned on. True, Alida's mother, the unspeakably rich Gertrude Waterman, has maternal bosom and house big enough to shelter the runaways indefinitely. But Gertrude disapproves her daughter's fit of independence. She hints that Alida should return to Hugo in California, if only for the sake of granddaughter Amelia, who misses having her own swimming pool.

But Alida has been seriously humiliated. So without quite deciding, she decides to stay on in Gertrude's luxurious establishment where muted servants run one's baths, lay out one's clothes, push the cocktail trolley and help care for one's child. Devoted clergymen and house-calling doctors wait in the wings to massage away every problem. There's even a collection of hairpieces one can borrow in emergencies.

Secretly, Alida is a little piqued by Gertrude's queenly competence, and by finding herself again in the position of daughter child. Not pique enough, however: It's left to family lawyer Andrew Cameron to suggest she take up some kind of work. Alida then realizes, as apparently never before, that "her training and education had left her unprepared for any roles but those defined by others and biology. Now she faced the task of making herself over, of being her own parent and teacher as she was born again into another kind of person."

We see no evidence that she's wrong. But by this point, a quarter of the way through the book, we've been lulled into faux riche narcosis ourselves, forgetting the struggle that kind of making-over really takes, even if one is loaded. We expect a new hair-dresser, or perhaps a volunteer job at a museum will do the trick. And we're right. Alida has fleetingly sensed that "without a husband, her life resembled an ill-made play . . . with no discernible theme." Now, for some reason, she finds herself comparing lipsticks to penises, signing up for a course in interior decoration and noticing that although Andrew is years older, he's not bad looking.

The tasteful bodice bursts, quietly and completely. With one man in her bed and others dictating career steps, Alida moves from success to success in her new profession without half trying--just like everyone else in her milieu, which now extends to East Side Manhattan. Because Hugo is a genius playwright, Gertrude an "artist" of needlepoint, Amelia a total charmer, Uncle Arthur a financial wizard and her new employers, Morgan and Guthrie, are fabulously clever connoisseurs of design, the fact that Alida too has saleable brilliance comes as no surprise.

"For example, scanning a shelf that held glass, Alida could distinguish a German 17th-Century pokal set next to a large, contemporary Scandinavian crystal vase beside a late-19th-Century English . . . cut-glass bowl beside a very small, very plain pitcher--Early American blown glass."

Anyway, it passes for brilliance in this odd world where nearly everyone--from California Hugo to Larry-the-Jewish-accountant-from-humble-beginnings and Larry's intellectual daughter--lapses into stage-British and seems obsessed with social back scratching, gift giving and house pride.

"They're enchanting people," Hugo says of a young couple who need decoration. "You'll love working with them." Larry adds: "We've decided they must buy a house. . . . There's nothing like a mortgage to keep people steady. They've never had a penny before, and they must learn to save. Is your firm too dear for them?"

The question goes unanswered, as do many others we'd like to ask of this book. Do rich ladies in Connecticut really call their table servants waitresses ? Why, in 1975, after living in New York and Los Angeles, is Alida made "uneasy" by "black faces" and "ethnic names" in her college catalogue? Did Alida miss the film "Diary of a Mad Housewife" in 1970, plus all the great feminist books of those years? And, finally, where can I get a nice Steuben vase to complement my glass eye?

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