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A Whole Life in a Shoe Box : Stops at the moral crossroads along life's bumpy road : CHOICES, By Mary Lee Settle (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: $24.95; 376 pp.)

June 11, 1995|Valerie Cornell | Valerie Cornell lives in New York and is completing a novel

"Three o'clock in the morning," in the world of Mary Lee Settle's new novel, "Choices," is the term for a moral crossroads. And there are plenty of those in the 60-odd years the novel spans--plenty of crossroads and plenty of roads. Characters are driven by a certain unpredictable wind of moral imperative that takes them where the action is.

Young Melinda Kregg, raised to be a Southern belle in 1930s Richmond, Va., with her yellow Ford roadster and crepe de Chine shimmy, by Page 62 has been thrown out of the Red Cross for aiding striking coal miners, by Page 86 is in jail with Communists and cooties in her hair, by Page 101 has finished Katie Gibbs and is in motor mechanics school in "Brooklyn, a place where people understood if you had to go to Spain" and by Page 112 is indeed driving a lorry in civil war-torn Spain.

By the novel's end she has also outlasted two marriages, the first to a British aristocrat-doctor named Tye, whom she adores and feels she communicates with after his death, and has adopted two children: Maria, a Spanish war orphan, and later Aiken, a Southern black teen-ager who has been sent north for an education at the New York State college where the now 50ish Melinda is employed as social dean.

In between Spanish carnage and American civil-rights struggles, there is World War II--with blackout curtains and air raids in London--and Melinda does war work. Finally it is an unconventional blood relative, Melinda's eccentric deceased Aunt Maymay, who gives Melinda her last, dearest home, a villa on the Italian island of Santa Corsara. Here, at the age of 82, Melinda puts her affairs in order and, having dealt with everything but "an old shoebox from Delman's," dies. (The death occurs in the prologue, so nothing is given away.) The shoe box has been in Melinda's lap; its contents scatter in the wind and "a polyglot of papers, keys, ribbons, pins, medals" provide our entry into a life and century defined for us by Settle as a continuum of moral choosing and political witnessing.

"You're one of them gets pulled to where it's at, ain't ye?" observes Mrs. Hightower, a rooming house proprietress in Cumberland Gap, of the young Melinda. "My husband used to say you can argy all day but when you wake up at three o'clock in the mornin a thing is wrong or it's right and you take to drink or do somethin about it."

Mary Lee Settle is nobody if not a writer who does something about things. She has been typed as a historical novelist, a term we might imagine she'd dislike, even if she hadn't said so publicly. What she is is a fine and solid American author, with British cadences, possessed of every skill and tool and sensibility necessary to the production of literature. She is best known for "The Beulah Quintet" (1956-1982), which traced 300 years of American history through several fictional West Virginia families, and won the National Book Award for "Blood Tie," a novel set in Turkey. All her books make dizzying vernacular use of the real stuff of place and time and voice, and "Choices" is no exception. We learn things, reading Settle.

There are problems with "Choices." As a character, Melinda is the victim of a problematic point of view, the third person that wants to be first . . . and so is never quite satisfactorily either descriptive or subjective. In addition, the mature Melinda's backward-looking eye is ever-present, and often intrusive, skewing the emotional impact of the story. Having Melinda take the grown Maria on a driving trip to Spain to revisit both their pasts--in a novel already about visiting the past--is a creaky device. The journey back seems gratuitous--we were just there, and the years in between have passed too hastily.

Perhaps the most serious obstacle to the novel's success is that for all her right-mindedness and heroism it isn't easy to love, or even fully like, Melinda. Yes, she is Everygirl/Everywoman, but she's without real flaw. Saltiness, short-temperedness, short stature and cooties are not flaws, at least not in this book. Melinda is human, but not, like a morally complex Hamlet, too, too human . . . so not human enough. This lack of depth would be less notable if the novel presented itself only as a series of historical tableaux through which our heroine moved, having adventures. But we are also asked to read it as an emotional journey, a memory story and for that we need more of a chance to identify with the rememberer. Something is not working in this novel; it makes an insufficient appeal to the reader's imagination. There is a whiff of the general failure of propagandistic art.

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