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Adrift in the '50s : A STONE GONE MAD, By Jacquelyn Holt Park (Random House; $20; 322 pp.)

March 01, 1992|Susan Heeger | Heeger is a free-lance writer, editor and critic, at work on a book about gardens

It's hard enough to make it through life if you fall into line and follow the rules. If you choose the path of self-knowledge, you might discover you're not like everyone else, and then you're really doomed.

This is the fix that Emily Stolle finds herself in at the beginning of "A Stone Gone Mad." A gawky girl with a poetic soul in 1950s New England, she's carried away by a crush on her older sister's best girlfriend. After the two are caught in flagrante delicto by both sister and father, Emily is thrown out of the house and locked in boarding school. She's also forced to endure the therapeutic ministrations of "Dr. Weiss," who, while fiddling compulsively with a toothbrush, tells her she's much too pretty to be a lesbian.

Over the next few years, Emily buries herself in school and sorority life and attempts to win back her family's love by being "good." She wrestles with the truth of Dr. Weiss' pronouncement and, with the diligence of a scientist, conducts romantic experiments with men. Some are nice, most aren't; none of them notices her intelligence or her poetry. Meanwhile, she continues to get crushes on girlfriends.

Considering the repressive atmosphere of '50s America, Emily usually keeps the news to herself. Nevertheless, she's repeatedly confronted by the message that to be a "queer" or a "homo" is to be adrift--avoided and despised. Her own sister, who has never recovered from the sight of Emily entwined in a girl's arms, forbids her to play with a beloved niece for fear that she'll "do something" to the child. A roommate in whom she confides moves out on her; one of her few female sexual partners, guilt-ridden, accuses her of rape.

But as the novel's title tells it, repression is no solution to the pain and loneliness of an unconventional life. When Emily tries to deny her own nature, she suffers even worse horrors: She begins to drink heavily; she's humiliated by loveless sex with men, and eventually, she goes wild, plunging into lesbian-bar life until her ordered existence breaks down completely.

The chapters that deal with Emily's bar phase are among the book's best, and capture some of the frenzied hunger that characterizes the search for self. Here, with hammering music obliterating her need to think, she can be anyone she wants to be: powerful, mysterious, beautiful and, most important, acceptable.

Unfortunately, it takes far too long for the novel to get to the bars, and the drama of Emily's dilemma is weakened by all the time spent on the trivial details of her not-very-remarkable life. Many pages are devoted to recounting dreamy adolescent musings and routine schoolgirl episodes; hordes of sketchily drawn people come and go without a great deal of impact on Emily's development or on the plot.

But the book's main problem lies with Emily herself. She's supposed to be a poet but she never writes, and she has little insight. Though she's our guide on her voyage of discovery (we see everything through her eyes and sometimes hear her voice), she's not reflective enough or interesting enough to interpret what happens to her.

The result is that, though she ends up in a long-term relationship with a woman who loves her, it's hard to grasp how she gets there or what's between them, or even who this woman is. The moments of transformation are missing--the small epiphanies that enable people to cross boundaries suddenly and connect.

Nevertheless, "A Stone Gone Mad" has the power of earnestness and conviction and it tells an important story about the price paid in our culture by those with courage enough to know themselves and to go their own way.

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