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BOOK REVIEW : The Comic Liberation of a Late Bloomer : PEACHY by Fredrica Wagman . Soho: $18.95; 224 pages

March 19, 1993|ELAINE KENDALL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Life is something less than peachy for Peachy when we bump into her on Battle Street, just after she's settled her daughter, Ruthie, into a freshman dorm at Harvard.

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At the not-too-advanced age of 45, Peachy is convinced that the best has already been, and that what's yet to come is sure to be the pits of peachiness.

For the first time in her life, she isn't attracting admiring glances from every passing man. Heads aren't turning, traffic isn't stopping and Peachy has the distinctly nasty sensation that she's "become part of that big army of bodies that look like they're made of jelly maybe, or maybe they're made of marmalade"--in other words, she's become an involuntary member of the vast club of invisible older women so corrosively described by Germaine Greer.

Though Peachy reminds herself that Flaubert said something about the mind being more important than the body, that's not much comfort to a woman who married at 18, right after not quite finishing high school.

Of course, if Peachy were still the wife of the adoring Alfred Marvel, a couple of laugh lines and a few silver threads among the jet might not seem like Armageddon. But she and Alfred have been separated for a year and the divorce is about to become final. Now that she's just delivered her sole justification for existence to Harvard, the bottom has fallen out of her shaky world.

Before starting the long drive back to Vineland, N.J., Peachy decides to pull herself together in a Cambridge bookstore, a locale she chooses because it reminds her of the public library where she spent the happiest hours of her girlhood.

While she's sitting in a corner meditating and doing a few yoga exercises, she's noticed by an imposing gentleman who invites her to breakfast. That cheers her, but when she realizes that her admirer is none other than the novelist Manuel Zot, she's ecstatic. Left with a muffin and a cooling cup of coffee while Zot goes off to meet his literature class, she fantasizes an entire affair, a diversion that seems a definite possibility until she reaches the issue of actual logistics.

Up to this point and for a number of pages thereafter, Peachy may not arouse the reader's most profound compassion. In fact, there are bound to be those who find her self-involvement tiresome.

In 1993, Peachy seems an anachronism--a pre-liberation mad housewife of the 1960s lost in the time-space continuum. Of course, she explains that Vineland was hardly on the cutting edge of feminism, and that her mother's philosophy of life could be summed up in the sentence: "A woman without a husband is nothing."

Though her father abruptly rejected her when she reached her teens and her mother has never stopped giving her unwelcome advice, these misfortunes are hardly more than a blip on the dysfunctional family scale. In themselves, those dynamics don't quite explain why grown-up Peachy hasn't found an appropriate outlet for her intelligence or her interests, both amply demonstrated in her breezy prose and astute insight into her own plight.

All is forgiven when the reminiscences of her childhood and adolescence are supplanted by an excruciatingly powerful account of the automobile accident in which her baby daughter was killed--a stream-of-consciousness segment so graphic, so intense and searing that the mere fact that Peachy can get through the ordinary routines of a day seems miraculous. By the end of that masterful chapter, this apparently brittle and shallow woman is transformed into someone else entirely, a tragic heroine cast in the classic mode.

When the rest of the novel slips back into a predictable and sentimental denouement, the retrogression is actually welcome. Peachy has earned salvation, even if her particular salvation is unfashionable.

Only a sadist would want her to live forever at the emotional pitch of that section describing the accident and its aftermath, no matter what miracles her anguish worked on her prose style. The woman has earned the right to all the comic relief she wants.

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