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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : A Woman's Arduous Journey to Find Her Voice, Herself : GRIEF IN A SUNNY CLIMATE by Diane Shalet ; St. Martin's $20.95, 288 pages

August 26, 1994|ELAINE KENDALL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The name of the narrator isn't Babe, but she answers to it until the last page of her story, when she's ready to resume her interrupted life. For most of the novel, Babe is one of modern fiction's crazy ladies, out of her head with loneliness and despair.

In common with so many of her sisters in misery, Babe has lost the husband who was the center of their existence for 12 years, and she's attempting to cope by mixing Valium, liquor and black comedy. Unlike the rest of this growing literary community of wretched women, Babe hasn't been replaced by a popsy half her age or rejected by a man who can't commit himself to a permanent relationship.

At the age of 43, Babe is newly widowed and virtually paralyzed with grief. She's not only buried a husband, but her entire identity.

Babe is a poet, but her poetry has been more of a diversion than a profession. She'd be the first to admit that she's lived most of her adult life vicariously, deriving her sense of self from Michael's acting career.

Babe is something of an anachronism in her generation, but realizing the fact doesn't help matters.

When her old friend and sometime psychotherapist Seymour invites her to Palm Springs, she accepts, hoping to find distraction and perhaps some direction, but Seymour isn't much help. He's a cartoon psychologist, nuttier than most of his celebrity patients. His prescription for Babe is a combination of illegal drugs and sex, both of which he is eager to supply before she's even unpacked.

Although Babe cooperates in this therapy, visiting Seymour on alternate weekends, she's always in tears by the time she reaches Riverside. "So take the Pomona Freeway," he says "You'll bypass it." "I can't bypass myself . . . I'm going to New York for two weeks. I have to find out who I am."

New York doesn't offer much in the way of enlightenment, although it does give the author a chance for some bi-coastal satire. Jerusalem is Babe's next stop, not because she expects to find solace in religion, but because she's met a Swedish theologian on the flight from New York to Los Angeles.

After delivering a paper on the "Ontology of a Messiah" in San Diego, Hjalmar is off to the Holy Land, where Babe will join him. While sex with Seymour wasn't particularly therapeutic, sex with Hjalmar seems more promising. By this time, Babe has added promiscuity to the already dangerous mix of booze and pills. Unfortunately, Hjalmar is worse than a caricature, he's a thief, and our hapless heroine winds up sadder, $3,000 poorer and no wiser.

Babe tries a couple of alternative therapies, a course that allows simultaneous pot-shots at New Age channeling and Old Age Freudian analysis, neither of which are any improvement over Seymour. Matters look up somewhat when a chance encounter on a bus leads Babe to a job in an advertising agency, another standard venue for satire.

*

In amazingly short order, Babe becomes the star copywriter, although not without paying a heavy price. In the course of her brief career, she meets still another false prophet, the writer Eric Rothender, who whisks her off to the Oregon wilderness, a steamy encounter that ends with Babe in a hospital after having overdosed on alcohol and pills.

Eric returns to Nicaragua, the setting for his blockbuster book and the place where his true love lives, but not before giving both Babe and the reader a basic course in Central American anguish.

Betrayed again, Babe returns to Palm Springs and Seymour, who is celebrating his 69th birthday by inviting all his celebrity patients to his suicide. In the midst of the bizarre festivities, Babe suddenly finds her voice and speaks her mind, discovering that her misadventures with drink, drugs and men have finally effected a cure, although perhaps not one you should try at home.

In the last chapter, she's sober, successful and able to say her own true name, although the recycling process has been arduous for both the narrator and the reader. Even though her plight is genuine, Babe seems cloned instead of invented; one more in a line of pitiful, female Quixotes tilting at fallen windmills, shooting at riddled targets.

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