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BOOKS & AUTHORS

Novel Has an English 'Eyre' About It : Former UCI teacher MacDonald Harris' tale of a governess and her employer is a Bronte-like story set in modern times and a warmer climate.

April 01, 1993|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEWPORT BEACH — Four years ago one of author MacDonald Harris' writer friends who was down on her luck stopped by to tell him of the "really wonderful job" she had heard about through an employment agency.

It seems there was a man in Laguna Beach--a widower with a child--who wanted to hire someone to manage his household. But when Harris later asked how the interview had gone, his friend smiled and said, "I wouldn't touch it."

"That's all she said," Harris recalls, "but it was quite clear to me that she felt this man was not to be trusted with a young woman in the house. But immediately--and here is where my bookish background comes in--I saw that this was a plot of a classic English novel, which you might call a governess novel."

The best example, he said, is Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre," "but there must be hundreds of novels with this idea: A young woman comes to take care of things in a house where there's a young widower and usually a child. So I thought how odd it is that these classic stories keep happening over and over again, because if she had gone down there and taken that job, I'm sure the same thing would have happened that happens in all the English novels."

The incident provided Harris with the kernel of an idea for a novel.

The result is "A Portrait of My Desire" (Simon & Schuster; $20), a contemporary story set in the fictional gated community of Orange Bay and nearby Playa del Mar. (Orange County readers will recognize elements of Emerald Bay and Laguna Beach.)

As the novel opens, Harry de Spain, a wealthy and strikingly handsome art gallery owner, is still overcome with grief over the death of his wife, Killian, whose "presence persisted in the house, lurking about him in the particles of air that hung in the room."

Although he's convinced no one will replace his wife, Harry realizes he and Peter, his "solitary and independent" 13-year-old son, need someone to help manage the house.

After interviewing several potential housekeepers, Harry hires Velda Venn, a pleasant, eager-to-please woman with an unmemorable face from one of the "less pretentious suburbs of Los Angeles."

Although the idea that he is looking for someone to replace Killian is so painful that he rejects out of hand "not only with his mind, but with every corpuscle of his blood, anyone who had the slightest trace of female attraction," Harry soon finds himself erotically obsessed with this unsophisticated yet powerfully sexual housekeeper--an obsession that mirrors his desire to possess a valuable painting that turns his life around.

"A Portrait of My Desire" is the 16th novel by MacDonald Harris, the pen name of Donald Heiney, one of the founders of UC Irvine's nationally acclaimed graduate Program in Writing.

Harris--his previous novels include "Hemingway's Suitcase" and "The Balloonist," which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1976--retired in 1991 after 26 years at UCI.

Although he's enjoying the luxury of now being able to devote full time to his fiction, Harris has discovered that he's writing the same number of hours--about four a day--as he did when he was working at the university.

"I think I'm not so much producing more, but I'm producing better, " he said over lunch on his patio earlier this week. "I've come to the conclusion that the university environment wasn't ideal for me. It didn't allow me enough freedom of imagination. My writing is getting a little crazier--I'm putting in more exclamation points."

Harris said he now realizes "that even though I thought of myself as a free spirit, all those years I was writing with the thought of those 30 English professors looking over my shoulder."

Harris began writing "A Portrait of My Desire" in the Spring of 1991, shortly after leaving the university. He wrote the first draft, in longhand, during a four-month stay in southern France and completed the novel last summer.

Although Orange Bay is obviously modeled after the wealthy seafront enclave of Emerald Bay, Harris created his own fictional gated community, which allows him to take literary license. "Reality," he said, "just complicates things."

That's another thing that's happening to him as a writer, he said: "I'm getting less realistic, less interested in transcribing the real world and more interested in creating an imaginary world."

In writing his novel, Harris said, he had no intention of writing another version of the classic English novel set in Britain. "I couldn't do that because it would seem inauthentic to me; it wouldn't seem to be my story," he said.

But he was interested in "the dynamic--the tension--created by taking a classic English story and putting it in a modern setting.

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