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How to Break Your Own Heart : FICTION : A DESERT OF PURE FEELING, By Judith Freeman (Pantheon Books: $24; 273 pp)

June 09, 1996|Julia Cameron | Julia Cameron is the author of "The Artist's Way." The focus of her current work is music- and sound-healing

Judith Freeman's novel, "A Desert of Pure Feeling," is aptly named. It is a book about people who lack the courage of their convictions--and evictions--and subsequently break their own hearts. Freeman is a fine writer but on this book her ear wobbles in and out of focus as if she is sometimes listening to her own true voice and at other times listening to erroneous advice from others: "Add a dialogue bridge here. They won't get it otherwise."

Such breaks in Freeman's flow are profoundly artificial and, as all artifice does, they suffer by comparison to the genuine article, the very real music of her own unadulterated voice. At her best, Freeman is a True Note, a spare and elegiac melody master whose voice in prose, like Joni Mitchell's in song, accurately captures the heart and heartache of the modern romantic dilemma: "I love and I am afraid to love."

It is the fear to love that shapes Freeman's plot: People connect and then, distrusting connection, they disconnect. Until book's end, they move through each other's lives as a series of missed chances. They find each other and let each other go through failures of nerve and trust at critical moments: "If only I'd said, if only I'd done. . . ." They betray each other, but most of all they betray themselves. Perhaps it is true that this is most often what we moderns do, but, ah, it is hard to bear the sorrow of this behavior even at the remove of the printed page.

Freeman's heroine, Lucy, a feckless young woman who marries young, bears a child with a damaged heart and subsequently falls into a long and passionate love affair with her child's surgeon, is a woman who hedges her bets just when she should risk all. She remains in her loveless marriage. She allows, even causes, her lover Carlos to drift away. When she meets him again, the love of her life, two decades later, she is once more too self-involved to connect to him truly. When he needs her support she is too self-concerned to offer it. Blaming him for her own losses, she loses him as well.

And what of the lover? He is beset with the dilemma of all healers: when to give life through taking risk, when to sustain it by not risking further, when to say enough is enough? Unfortunately, the one life he cannot save is his own. Like his lover, and long after her departure, he remains in a conventional marriage, doing the right thing according to appearances and procedure but failing to take the risk that as a surgeon he might have: amputating to sustain life.

Beset by guilt due to a childhood wrong--a grievous wrong but one that he might have forgiven with the help of a lover's compassionate heart--he hurls himself, finally not into health but into a fatal sea of self-loathing. As with Freeman's heroine, it is not so much that he does not love his lover as that he cannot love himself.

Like Joan Didion's, Freeman's eye is mesmerizing and merciless. Like Didion's, it has a gift for loving landscape, even the loveless landscape of Las Vegas. This was Didion's turf for "Play It As It Lays," the novel "A Desert of Pure Feeling" brings to mind in its astringent assessments of human nature. Hear this from Freeman:

"Water is everywhere here where you don't think it should be. It fills ponds and pools, forms moats around fake castles, erupts from sprinklers and fountains and runs off over-saturated lawns. I asked a taxi driver yesterday on the drive from the airport, 'Where does all this water come from?' I imagined he would say Lake Mead, the Colorado River, Hoover Dam. Instead, the cabbie pointed downward. 'Aquifers,' he said 'It all comes from underground,' and somehow as he said this, I could see all that water lying in dark pools deep beneath the earth. I envisioned it being sucked to the surface and erupting in a fine blue spray blowing out over the sand and sage and bunch-grass, landing like a mistaken blessing on the tawny and desiccated earth."

It is less water than the milk of human kindness for which Freeman's characters are thirsty. That her heroine is able, ultimately, to tap this inner vein is the book's redemption and her own. Devastated by losing Carlos through her own hand a second time, Lucy has retreated to the desert of the heart--and the heart of the desert. In Las Vegas, she encounters a stripper, a young woman dying of AIDS. In ministering to her wounded heart, Lucy, at bottom, heals her own.

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