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Turmoil roiling beneath the still surface of love

Sweetwater; A Novel; Roxana Robinson; Random House: 324 pp., $24.95

May 12, 2003|Bernadette Murphy | Special to The Times

Reading "Sweetwater," a novel by Roxana Robinson ("This Is My Daughter"), is a lot like watching an Olympic diver. We are vaguely aware of the structure and form that holds the diver's efforts together, and yet entranced with the beauty presented. We watch, our breath held, anticipating little errors because we've seen just how difficult such feats are to execute flawlessly. Nail it, we silently urge.

A deceivingly quiet narrative, "Sweetwater" traces the life of 47-year-old Manhattanite Isabel Green, an environmental advocate widowed two years earlier. When Paul, kind and genial, enters Isabel's life, he represents the shoots of new growth that come after the darkness of mourning. Though there are few fireworks and little intellectual stimulation between them, Paul offers Isabel something that seems equally important: comfort and companionship.

"It wasn't wonderful," Isabel muses after their first night together, "but it was wonderful in being all right." What more can she expect at this point, with a body that's beginning to sag and a life that has run much of its course? Paul offers an antidote to the solitary existence she's endured since the death of her first husband, Michael, and Isabel accepts his marriage proposal as such.

The majority of the tale takes place as the couple vacation in the Adirondack Mountains, enjoying Paul's family's summer retreat, named Sweetwater, canoeing the lakes, exploring the physical terrain, while Isabel gets to know the exterior of Paul's history via his parents, Douglas and Charlotte, and his brother Whitney.

Alternating with the Adirondack tale, Robinson fills readers in on the details from Isabel's first marriage, a union overflowing with passion and intellectual fire, and, as the story slowly reveals, irreparably damaged by the soul-numbing effects of Michael's clinical depression. Not only had his depression ravaged his own self, but it ate insidiously into Isabel's being, forever altering her outlook on love and commitment. Unlike the reader, though, Paul knows little of these elements of Isabel's story.

Both Paul and Isabel have been shaped by the earlier moments of their lives, the little hurts and huge sufferings that have marked them. Having taken wedding vows, neither aware of more than the surface story of the other, difficulties erupt in the first few months of marriage. This tension begins to swamp the rickety canoe of married life they are constructing.

Little by little, the characters -- particularly Isabel -- reveal themselves, letting us see the layers of emotion and experience that have formed them. The joys and adjustment problems she encounters with Paul are set in relief against the heartbreaks and triumphs she'd endured with Michael. The past hadn't been perfect, she knows. At times, it had been horrible. But it had also been vibrant and quaking with life.

The use of metaphor to carry out the novel's themes is impressive, the more so because, like a well-trained athlete, Robinson makes it look easy, keeping the connections so subtle that we're hardly aware of them. Isabel works as an environmental advocate, for example, educating the public about the ways we injure the world that nourishes us. Her specialty is subterranean water: "Far more valuable than oil or gold, these rich hidden mother lodes were the earth's real treasure," she explains. Once an aquifer has been polluted by toxic chemicals, it becomes next to impossible to return it to its unsullied state. "Above-ground contamination was hard [to restore], but everything was easier than subterranean." The same is true, the novel implies, of deep wounds in people. Yet water, that crucial substance without which life is impossible, like the human spirit, is "always in the process of returning to its limpid, pristine, original self."

The Adirondack region where Sweetwater is located has been suffering from a debilitating drought, a fact that adds delicious foreshadowing as we watch Isabel trying to content herself with the marriage she's entered. This dryness, internal and external, sets the scene for Whitney, Paul's brother, to spark the tinder into flame.

Abundant in poetic language and incisive imagery, Robinson unfolds what seems, at first, to be a subdued story about relationships and love, but which slowly reveals ever-dilating depth and breadth. The book plumbs the subject of human communion and how necessary this connection is to sustain life. Like the precious water Isabel shepherds, the human spirit is a marvel to behold, and fragile. Robinson frames this vista with an expertly constructed narrative. And when she pulls off the ending with breathtaking skill, the effect is utterly satisfying.

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