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THE POWERBOOK By Jeanette Winterson; Alfred A. Knopf: 288 pp., $24

LINCOLN AT HOME Two Glimpses of Abraham Lincoln's Family Life By David Herbert Donald; Simon & Schuster: 125 pp., $30

PARIS TO THE MOON By Adam Gopnik; Random House: 338 pp., $24.95

November 05, 2000|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

THE POWERBOOK By Jeanette Winterson; Alfred A. Knopf: 288 pp., $24

Jeanette Winterson is fond of fairy tales, threading them through her novels, often telling the story in fairy-tale form and language. Fairy tales are where the trouble starts, where truth and lies get woven together. They are told in the gilded language of heroes and villains, champagne and balconies. "The Powerbook" is a love story between two women ("Sex between women is mirror geography. . . . You are the hidden place that opens to me on the other side of the glass"), written part in computer-ese (e-mails move the plot forward; there's cyberspace in the novel and meatspace) and part in fairy tale retellings of famous love stories like Lancelot and Guinevere. Winterson plays with the archetypes of fairy tales. "In this life," she writes, "you have to be your own hero. . . . Like it or not, you are alone in the forest." Playing with the fairy tale form allows her to be mischievous and pixie-like with everyday love stories, but it also allows her a level of distance from her characters that shaves dimensions off their personalities. That is always the trade-off: An everyman with a lesson for womankind cannot be an individual, unique and intimate with the reader. "The Powerbook" is a manifesto for bravery in love. "She believed what her heart told her," the main character says of her mother, "but she could never follow it." It contains beautiful writing but too much manifesto. One wishes more than ever that Winterson would resist her impulse to write, then explain, write, then explain.

LINCOLN AT HOME Two Glimpses of Abraham Lincoln's Family Life By David Herbert Donald; Simon & Schuster: 125 pp., $30

"This little book offers two glimpses of Lincoln as a family man," writes David Herbert Donald, longtime historian of the civil war and Lincoln biographer. The first is the result of an evening Donald spent in the Bush White House, speaking about Lincoln's private life with his wife Mary and their two sons, Tad and Willie (a third son, Eddie, died while the couple lived in Springfield, Ill.). The Lincolns moved to the White House in 1861, and Mary began almost immediately to redecorate. Much of this first section paints a Madame Bovary-like portrait of Mary, spending more than the federal budget has allowed for the redecoration, interested more in plates than in dying soldiers. In 1862, Willie, age 11, died of a fever "caused by pollution in the White House water system." Mary plunged into despair, shrouded herself in yards of black, engaged in "paroxysms of weeping." Donald seems to feel that she took her mourning too far, that she was excessive in her emotions and that she spent too much money on clothes. The woman that emerges, against the stern backdrop of a virtually absentee husband, is hysterical and controlling. The second glimpse consists of letters written from 1848 to 1865 between Abraham and Mary, with a few from Robert, their oldest son, from boarding school and then from Harvard. Donald intervenes editorially only a few times. Once, Mary apparently became jealous of her husband's attention to another woman and "created an embarrassing scene," which Donald refers to as a "bout of paranoia." It is one of many long leaps, it seems, even for a distinguished historian. These snappish asides give a gossipy feel to an otherwise straightforward narrative.

PARIS TO THE MOON By Adam Gopnik; Random House: 338 pp., $24.95

Adam Gopnik is not the first New Yorker writer to decamp to Paris, but he is ours, in our time, of our generation, with children and strollers and fax machines, still looking for the perfect cafe, still caught up in the romance of Paris (heightened by the romance of family life: the presence of his wife, Martha; his child, Luke; and baby Olivia, who was born during their five-year stay in Paris). Even in an era in which Paris is doing its historical, cyclical death, in which the arrogance and the strikes and the bureaucracy make it less livable than ever, Gopnik holds firm to an ideal he coined when he was 8, of a dream city. Adam and his wife leave New York hoping to give their baby boy a vision of a future that might not include GameBoys and Walkmans and Disney. Gopnik gives us an insight into French culture using the metaphors offered up by everyday life, for example, the different ways of cutting Christmas trees (the French with a cross nailed at the base to keep in the life force, the Americans with a bowl of water to pretend the tree is still alive). He takes us inside the French political mind, participating in a sit-in to save a local brasserie (the Balzar) from a conglomerate. Why did they go back to New York after five years? "We have a beautiful existence in Paris," Gopnik's wife reasons, "but not a full life. . . . In New York we have a full life and an unbeautiful existence."

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