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Book Review

Page-Turner Tries to Trace 'Scarlet Letter'

THE SABBATHDAY RIVER, A Novel; by Jean Hanff Korelitz; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $25; 500 pages

April 27, 1999|SUSIE LINFIELD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's a September afternoon in the tiny town of Goddard, N.H. Recently divorced Naomi Roth--whose heart belongs to her native New York City and to the radical movements of the '60s--is taking a stroll along the Sabbathday River when she spies something in the water. It looks like a child's lost doll, but it turns out to be a perfectly beautiful, perfectly dead baby girl. This becomes the event that will Change Naomi's Life Forever.

It also changes the life of Heather Pratt, a 20-year-old Goddard native who is quickly arrested for the crime. Heather has had a widely known, indeed proudly flaunted, affair with a married man in town, which produced Heather's infant daughter and the lasting enmity of her sanctimonious neighbors. Naomi is outraged by Heather's arrest and regards the young single mother as Goddard's "designated sacrifice, its lottery winner under a shower of stones."

But then Naomi finds another dead baby girl buried in a pond behind Heather's house. Heather is charged with this death too, and Naomi's friend, lawyer Judith Friedman--a soul sister from New York--takes up Heather's case, in which, it will turn out, Judith has more than a purely professional interest.

Jean Hanff Korelitz's "The Sabbathday River" attempts to be many things: a feminist parable, a retelling of a 19th century classic, an examination of social and sexual tensions, a meditation on good and evil, and an old-fashioned page turner. It fails in all of these aims except for the last, where it succeeds spectacularly. Despite its odd combination of banality and pretension, this is an undeniably gripping novel. Korelitz knows how to tell her story.

There are other things she does not know. Almost from the beginning, "The Sabbathday River" is filled with allusions to "The Scarlet Letter." Instead of ostracized single mother Hester Prynne, Korelitz gives us ostracized single mother Heather Pratt; instead of Hester's radiant child, Pearl, we have Heather's radiant child, Polly. Lucky Heather has her very own Arthur Dimmesdale too, in the person of Ashley Deacon, her ne'er-do-well married lover. And--lest we are entirely obtuse--we soon learn that Heather, an expert seamstress, has sewn an exquisite baby sampler bearing the motto "A Is for Apple."

"The Scarlet Letter" is one of the great achievements of American literature; why would any writer attempt to remake, revise or rewrite it? Indeed, Korelitz seems intimidated by her self-appointed task, for where Nathaniel Hawthorne offered characters who lived large, Korelitz's are almost willfully banal. Hester Prynne, as the critic Elizabeth Hardwick once wrote, is so radiantly autonomous that she is beyond either victimhood or betrayal. Heather--as befits contemporary Americana, perhaps--is horrifyingly empty, "a pale and formless person, a blank."

While Hester creates herself through suffering, Heather collapses under it: Ashley's rejection leaves her negated, erased, "hollowed out." And though both Ashley Deacon and Arthur Dimmesdale are spineless hypocrites, they cannot be said to share the same moral universe. Dimmesdale may be craven, but he is also engaged in a genuinely ferocious struggle with his soul and his God; Ashley is a selfish jerk in a bad marriage who comes up with lines like, "I'm not a creep." Korelitz offers a Kmart version of Hawthorne's rich, dark world.

As a feminist lesson--the story of a young girl who comes alive only when in love--Korelitz's aim is truer. But as her "Scarlet Letter" model implies, she is clearly attempting something more: an examination of good and evil, and in particular the suffering of the Jews, who inhabit "their very own wing in the cosmic museum of victimhood." Korelitz is not exactly Nietzsche, Kant or Primo Levi, but her book ends with an engaging debate among Naomi, Judith and several other characters in which Naomi professes the sacrilegious theory that God despises the Jews and that the Holocaust, therefore, is precisely "what He chose us for."

But Korelitz's attempts to link the meaning of her story with that of the Holocaust ring false. Nothing that happens in "The Sabbathday River," including the painless deaths of the two infants, has the slightest connection to the dehumanization, torture and extermination of millions. When Korelitz writes of "the children in the cattle cars" or recounts a grotesque concentration camp experiment performed on a mother and her newborn, she is exploiting the agony of the Holocaust--using it to endow her own comparatively meager story with gravitas. This is cheap, and fraudulent.

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