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Book Review

Tale Aims for Passion but Settles for, Oh, Such Human Bondage

THE PHYSICS OF SUNSET; by Jane Vandenburgh; Pantheon; $24, 296 pages

July 19, 1999|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One insidious problem stemming from political correctness--for me, anyway--is that I sometimes find myself thinking in its terms even when I don't intend to. It's not always a question of approving or disapproving: It has simply become hard not to notice, in one film or book, macho women (hear them roar?) gamely defying sexist stereotypes and, in another, retro women strangely devoid of assertiveness. Although it can be exasperating to see how carefully some writers adhere to the PC protocol, it can be equally annoying to see others reviving nasty old stereotypes.

In reading a great novel, particularly one in the realist tradition, such minor cavils are often overwhelmed by the complexity, denseness and depth of the lives portrayed in its pages. But when the novel in question is thin to start with, the bare bones of its underlying "ideology" have a way of protruding.

In her novel "The Physics of Sunset," Jane Vandenburgh, author of "Failure to Zigzag," depicts a love affair that flares up between two people who for some years have been neighbors in Berkeley. Anna Bell-Shay is a poet, wife and mother in the process of divorcing her husband, Charlie, a handsome, happy-go-lucky skirt-chaser. Anna finds herself unexpectedly attracted to her friend Gina's husband, Alec Baxter, a well-known architect. Unlike good-time Charlie, whose inherited (rather than earned) wealth seems to have made him a bit of a lightweight, Alec, we're told, is "serious," which somehow has to do with his being self-made, Jewish, from Queens and interested in physics.

The milieu in which their passion unfolds is the affluent, arty enclave of Berkeley, which, as Vandenburgh astutely portrays it, is far from the hotbed of sexual liberation that some might suppose. "What mattered more than sex to the kinds of people they were," she explains, "was the bonds of friendship. Everyone's family was so far away, it was only by friendships this town was knit together." Because Alec's wife, Gina, is Anna's friend, Anna and Alec's affair threatens the very fabric of their lives.

But Anna, we're told, is searching for something beyond the quotidian. She's the kind of woman who's thought of becoming a Buddhist and who's dismayed to think that when she and Charlie have made love, the act did not have "God in it." Alec is also presumably searching for something. He is the kind of man who would not walk out on his family, but who feels miffed by the fact that his wife, an ambitious artist, spends too much time in her studio, too little time in the kitchen and invites too many women friends to their house.

*

It is somewhat difficult to gauge the author's attitude toward her two main characters. Are we to regard Anna as a sensitive, gifted woman or a pathetic phony? Just as we're getting to know her, we are plunged into several chapters about Alec. Again, it's hard to tell: Are we to take him as an impressive man or a grumpy male chauvinist intolerant of his wife's perfectly reasonable aspirations?

Despite--well, maybe because of--the risks, Anna and Alec become involved. Alec realizes "that the pain they shared would be part of their hell and thrill. Pain would change them." This pain, which at first seems to suggest the sorrow of broken hearts and shattered homes, turns out to be more of a literal, physical pain as their bedroom antics expand to include bondage, whipping and anal sex. At this point, the viewpoint has shifted back to Anna, whose role in these activities is that of the classic female masochist. From her perspective at least, it seems there's nothing like a bit of S & M to put the sacred back into one's love life. And at this point, the feminist in me, already annoyed by Alec's resentment of his wife's career, feels like throwing a bucket of cold water over the pair of them. Couldn't the author at least have shown some spark of inventiveness or humor by having the man be the masochist and the woman the sadist? But Vandenburgh takes her sexual mysticism very seriously, writing about the acts in question as if she were the first writer ever to explore them.

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