- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 21, 2003

Zeus and Aphrodite make a wager: Aphrodite insists a “woman singer can be as great as any man,” while Zeus parries that “she will throw it all away for the love of an unworthy man.” Zeus grants Sappho, the chosen singer, “all the gifts of song,” and Aphrodite makes the warrior-singer Alcaeus irresistible. What fun; what a joyful romp is the outcome of this wager as told in Erica Jong’s fantasy novel Sappho’s Leap (Norton, $24.95, 316 pages).

As the story begins, the 50-year-old Sappho, her once “black hair, which used to glisten like wet violets on an ebony altar, … now steely gray,” stands on a cliff high above the “wine-dark” sea. Legend has it that a plunge from that cliff will bring death or cure a hopeless love. She muses on her life and plunges down into the sea.

At age 15, Sappho fell madly in love with golden-haired Alcaeus (almost everyone except for Sappho herself has golden ringlets). Quickly married off to a rich old drunkard to keep her out of trouble, Sappho soon finds her gift, motherhood and fame.

Her adventures in search of her lost love, Alcaeus, take her to Delphi (where she becomes a seer in her own right); to Egypt (where she sings her way to become the Pharaoh’s favorite and meets the fabler Aesop who becomes her devoted friend)); to Hades (where she encounters her beloved dead father and baby brother); to the land of the Amazons (where her friend and slave leaves her to become queen); to the island of the Centaurs (whom she unites with the Amazons, who love horses, as an ideal combination). She finds and loses Alcaeus several times, spends several years on an island in utopic harmony, has lots of love affairs (both male and female) and revels in fame and infamy.

History and literature have left few facts about the real life of the singer and poetess, born on the Greek island of Lesbos about 600 B.C., whom Plato called “the tenth muse.” Erica Jong has woven the bits and pieces of her known existence, together with Miss Jong’s own translation of the fragments of Sappho’s surviving poety, into an exuberant novel of life, lust, adventure and marvels.

“Sappho’s Leap” is not great literature, but it is great fun. There are sly references to Homeric epics and contemporary attitudes as well as 18 pages of Miss Jong’s own poetic endeavors in Sapphic style.

• • •

As he sits smoking in a cafe in Vilnius, a successful, 70-ish writer watches a young woman holding a small child and his “insides wrenched, suddenly, sharply.” Steponas is the cynical central character of Stephan Collishaw’s haunting first novel, The Last Girl (St. Martin’s, $24.95, 320 pages).

Although Mr. Collishaw is an Englishman, his novel about pre-World War II and post-freedom-from-the-Russian-yoke Vilnius, has an extraordinary ring of authenticity. The grim, gray struggle to survive in a city that has lost its prewar light is ever present in the first-person account.

Steponas has been watching young mothers. He follows one, Jolanta, and manages to meet and befriend her. She asks a favor of him — would he, as a writer, read the manuscript her troubled husband has written and evaluate it. Steponas agrees, but in a drunken stupor he loses the manuscript. His frantic attempts to recover the manuscript, the attempted blackmail by various shady characters who exist at the fringes of Steponas’ life and his relationship with the woman who does his laundry form the core of the plot.

The story unfolds gradually, like windows in an advent calendar, as the reader gains entry into each new aspect of the story, sometimes the story of Jolanta and her husband’s manuscript, sometimes Steponas’ recollections of his youth and love for a beautiful Jewish girl, and sometimes the laundress’ own sordid existence with an abusive husband, a beloved son and a dark past.

Steponas must forgive himself for a long-past act of betrayal; that he is able to do so with the help of Jolanta and her mother is the catharsis which forms the basis for this fascinating first novel.

The reaction of Steponas’ schoolmates and teachers to his youthful patriotic poem; the nationalism of the Lithuanians, Poles and Russians in Vilnius before the war and during the years of Soviet domination illuminate with subtle clarity how it was possible for the Nazis to annihilate the Jewish population of that city almost without lifting a finger.

• • •

Gioia Diliberto is a biographer of Jane Addams, Hadley Hemingway and Brenda Frazier. Her first novel, I am Madame X (Scribners, $24, 272 pages) has the feel of a biography, although it’s a mostly fictitious account of the life of Virginie Gautreau, the beautiful American who was the model for John Singer Sargent’s painting, “The Portrait of Madame X,” the famous picture of a proud, beautiful woman with chalk-white skin, posed provocatively in a black dress with diamond straps, which caused a real-life scandal when Sargent exhibited it at the Salon of 1884 in Paris.

Not much is known about the real Virginie Gautreau, but Ms. Diliberto has assembled all the known facts and transformed the unknown reality into a lively and delicious tale of the 19th-century Parisian society into which Virginie and her socially ambitious mother entered when they fled to Paris from the family plantation near New Orleans at the end of the Civil War.

Virginie took Paris by storm. Her love affairs, beginning with a teenage romance with a handsome, ruthless philandering doctor, to her “marriage blanc” with banker Pierre Gautreau and her dalliance with the ugly but mesmerizing republican politician, Leon Gambetta, were legion. Yet she remained the toast of Parisian society until she sat for her portrait by Sargent.

Despite the ridicule engendered by the portrait, Virginie miraculously regained her social throne. Sargent, who withdrew to London to paint less controversial society portraits, nevertheless insisted “The Portrait of Madame X” was his masterpiece and so it has remained.

• • •

“It was overpowering, the smell of mangoes — some fresh, some old, some rotten.” Amulya Malladi begins her charming second novel, The Mango Season (Ballantine, $22.95, 240 pages), with the overpowering, nostalgia laced odors that confront 27-year-old Priya upon her first visit home to Hyderabad in southern India after seven years in San Francisco.

Priya has made a life for herself in the United States. She has a good job, is living with and engaged to an American whom she loves and who loves her. Now she has come home for a visit where everything first appears strange and even repulsive. The familiar conflicts with her traditional family, and in particular her bossy mother, overwhelm her.

Her parents and grandparents want her to marry a suitable Indian “boy” and against her wishes have arranged a meeting with a handsome prospective bridegroom who, despite also living in the United States, nevertheless is willing to seek a bride in the traditional way. Priya does not know how to tell her family that she is engaged and set on marrying an American. Their reaction, when she finally tells them, is far worse than anything she hadanticipated. She fears that she will lose their love forever.

Interspersed in the story are occasional recipes for mango pickle and other dishes being prepared by the women of the family, as well as ever more frantic e-mail messages between Priya and her fiance Nick in San Francisco.

“The Mango Tree” touches on a very human conflict with delicacy and humor. Miss Malladi makes Priya’s ambivalence understandable and powerful.

She resolves it well and with tongue-in-cheek wit. “The Mango Tree” is a lovely novel, filled with the small details and sensual evocations of life in India without neglecting the claustrophobic aspect of that life. The tug in Priya’s heart is genuine.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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