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Getting into character

House Lights A Novel Leah Hager Cohen W.W. Norton: 302 pp., $24.95

July 15, 2007|Tara Ison | Tara Ison is the author, most recently, of "The List."

"MY dream is to act.... I would very much like to talk with you about becoming an actress," begins Leah Hager Cohen's new novel, "House Lights." It's the start of a letter written by her young heroine, Beatrice, and its ingenuous Rona Jaffe-ish tone is a tough opening line to get past. But keep reading.

Beatrice is the sheltered only child of well-respected psychologist parents Sarah and Jeremy Fisher-Hart; this is a loving family floating along in its bubble of Cambridge, Mass., academia and upper-middle-class self-aggrandizement. "The disgusting thing about us Fisher-Harts was that there were only three of us in the world, and we had mythologized ourselves preciously," Beatrice tells us.

The Fisher-Harts' fabulist existence might have continued, were it not for (1) her decision, at age 19, to contact her grandmother, a once-famous theater actress, now estranged from the family for some hazy reason; and (2) an accusation of sexual harassment leveled against Jeremy by one of his female supervisees. Pop goes the bubble.

That accusation, Beatrice learns, is only the most recent episode in a long line of Jeremy's offenses against students and patients, all now exposed. The family attempts to cling to appearances, to normality: "We Fisher-Harts, with our superior understanding of the complications and pitfalls of communication, would regard this as simple foolishness on the part of the student. A mismatch of sophisticated, unchecked wit and sophomoric hypersensitivity." Her father is, "irrefutably, a special man. Alas for the mediocre-minded supervisee who couldn't grasp the goodness, the moral strength and depth that earned him his easy way with words and wordplay. Perhaps she might be pitied for it, even excused, but certainly she was in error. I shut up that little voice inside me in this way."

But also revealed are the enabling concealments and betrayals within the family, and Beatrice is forced to deconstruct a life built precariously on artifice:

"They had lied to me, my mother and my father, about everything. Our status, our position, our rightness. The irreproachability of our triumvirate. Our wholesome enjoyment of thoughtfully chosen, expensive meals.... And all our trappings of quality -- the armloads of flowers fresh from the garden, the eleven-year-old maroon Saab in the drive, the classical music on the stereo, the 1818 plaque on the front of the house -- resonated with me then as sham."

Revulsion toward her father, not just for his sins but for his sledgehammering of his own heroic pedestal, rage at her mother's willingness to turn a blind eye, and horror at her own willful repression of reality ("I was a liar, too, long complicit by inaction, by keeping up their silence, our silence, our act") cause Beatrice to flee her home for the welcoming arms of her grandmother's artsy circle of theater friends.

There she meets the celebrated theatrical director Hale Rubin, who will just happen to be on the lookout for an ingenue to play the role of Thisbe in his new experimental play about intertwined mythological lovers. At which point our heroine's naive aspiration is transformed into a self-reflective and sometimes clunky motif: "Could it be that my parents had been actors all these years, trapped in roles they hadn't really liked?" she wonders. Was an actor's greater asset "skill at lying or skill at truth-telling?"

As Beatrice's feelings toward Hale, who is a good 28 years older than she, bloom into confessed and reciprocated love, she obsesses over her motivation. Is she simply replaying her father's sorry history? "Do you think I could be -- afflicted?" she asks Hale. "My father, his -- predilections? You think I'm like that in reverse?" But her father's behavior ranged from a breach of professional ethics to flat-out criminal; a young woman's consensual love affair with a distinguished older man is simply -- well, we all know that story, so imposing this psychological and narrative parallel on Beatrice feels a bit forced.

Problematic, too, is Cohen's use of the first-person narrative voice. It's tricky to expect a clueless 19-year-old to recount her own story with the kind of insight and texture a novel needs. We get hints that this is a story told in hindsight, with a layering-in of Beatrice's retrospective analysis. But the first three-quarters of the novel seem intended to root us primarily in her immediate (and limited) consciousness, so comments such as "The reason I kept my hair clipped short was that I was vain about the length of my neck" or (regarding Hale) "The thought of infant me, wet and mewling, coming into the world just as Hale was taking a woman to wife, felt awkward" make for a muddled perspective and an oddly anachronistic tone.

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