- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 25, 2003

THE FURIES

By Fernanda Eberstadt

Knopf, tk, 451 pages

REVIEWED BY CYNTHIA GRENIER

What does one say about Fernanda Eberstadt’s fourth novel “The Furies?” It’s definitely a serious book, one about that interesting recent decade the 1990s and about the ever-ongoing problem of relations between women and men.

In the book, Miss Eberstadt casts her keenly observant eye on the foibles of society here and abroad — abroad being the struggling, confused nation that not so long ago was the Soviet Union. She is particularly good at setting scenes, briefly, pungently. Her favored literary form being the paragraph of few phrases:

“It was a lawless frontier town, ugly as sin, rotten-new, a deep-freeze Las Vegas with shackles at its ankles. Every month a deputy minister or a local gas boss or a foreign businessman was found dead in his ZIL; there were more bodyguards than schoolteachers. It was Novosibirsk four years After Communism (4 A.C.), and it was Gwen’s favorite place on earth, her chosen no-man’s land.”

Heroine Gwen works for the Lavrinksky Institute, where her boss spends half a billion dollars in a year: retraining biochemists in Kazakhstan; vaccinating children against tuberculosis; reflooding the Aral Sea and such. Gwen rides herd on his Russian projects, knowing in the worst way Russia really wasn’t working, “but it beat her previous job, working for the State department.” She is the product of wealth, the best schools, and enjoys her own co-op in an Upper West Side luxury high-rise, shopping at Robert Clergerie and Prada.

It is in Novosibirsk that Gwen meets the man whom she had glimpsed earlier sleeping on a bench in Central Park, a toe poking through his red Converse sneakers. She now finds the same man as a puppeteer performing on the street. Punch line of his show: “The Devil appears as an IMF banker in an Uncle Sam hat, promising to make villagers millionaires.”The shaman turns the Devil-banker into a rooster and eats him, crying in clumsy Russian to an appreciative audience, “Men and women, there are enough devils in this country to put a chicken in every pot, so get your water boiling, and your knives sharp!”

At that point, heroine and hero meet. He is balding, bearded, wiry, goes by the name of Gideon Wolkowitz. She finds his breath “toasty on the back of her neck,” and she is forced to try and regain her balance, “to fend off that disabling warmth. To breathe. That’s what male beauty — no, not even beauty — malemaleness did to you, it was that pathetic.”

Back in New York they meet again. That night she tells her all too proper Ivy League Wall Street boyfriend she no longer is in love with him. And by page 43, after coffee in his loft Gideon is pulling her woolen tights down to her ankles and doing things to her we don’t write about in family newspapers.

And by page 46 she’s confessing, “I think I’ve fallen in love with you,” — the grand all-consuming passion it would seem.A lot is the sex, about which Miss Eberstadt is both graphic and discreet, that is, she employs a few heavily descriptive words, but does not go overboard with lengthy bedroom sessions.

Gwen and Gideon’s lives intertwine and are described in short, almost breathless paragraphs, more nouns and adjectives than verbs. Sometimes we are inside Gwen’s mind, sometimes Gideon’s. We meet her family and friends, his complicated arrangements with Greenwich Village theatrical denizens. We see that virtually the only thing really joining them is this great, beyond-all-understanding sex.

Miss Eberstadt pulls back, as she often does in this long work to query: “Lovers, do you believe in your eternity? Or is it just a tease (the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble), an ironical acknowledgment that the only certainty is rupture, dispossession? An absolute negation of everything we make.”

Then, suddenly Gwen finds herself pregnant, protesting that she’s been using a diaphragm since she was 20 years old. No matter, pregnant she is. Suddenly they are married, Gideon is moving into her luxurious Upper Westside nest, there’s a difficult pregnancy, then a dreadful near-death birth and the arrival of baby Bella who transforms their lives. Miss Eberstadt is remarkably, painfully even, right on the mark in articulating the impact of an infant on a couple, and especially on a working woman’s life.

Then suddenly, there’s no sex, never-ending conflict over every issue of caring for Bella, Gideon’s trying to raise funding for his little theater group, Gwen back to commuting to Russia. They’ve almost stopped talking to one another. By Bella’s first birthday they are two hostile forces. Gwen “wonders why she yoked herself to a semiliterate with no culture deeper than bluegrass.” Gideon is in grip of deep sexual frustration, that one night gives way to a sudden “act of non-love.” Pregnant again. This time, abortion. Gideon moves out. It’s over.

Our author has yet one more turn before Gwen is left facing the phrase that serves as the epigram to the book: “And you, harsh girl. You are looking for … absolution?”

Curiously, in a work whose prime motivating factor seems to be passion, there is little of it that is easy to comprehend. In this book, all is exceedingly well observed, but the only real passion that a reader can understand is that expressed by Gideon discovering the essence of being a Jew. In the end, you understand Gwen, but you feel for Gideon.

Cynthia Grenier writes The Mag Trade column for The Washington Times.

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