Saturday, April 24, 2004

Kate Walbert’s crystalline second novel, “Our Kind,” combines a wistful lyricism with wry humor in its portrayal of what may seem, at first, an unpromising subject: the quiet, leisured lives of a group of older women in Pennsylvania’s affluent Brandywine Valley.

These women (all, save one, divorcees and widows) have names like Mimi, Bambi and Canoe; they gather around each other’s swimming pools to smoke cigarettes, and stave off boredom by hatching odd plans. As the first of the book’s linked stories opens, they are mulling an “intervention” to save the life of their common idol, a handsome local realtor — “A realtor, but never desperate … Just thirsty.”

In another story, “Come As You Were,” the women throw a party to model their old wedding gowns and end up skinny-dipping in the dark, “our white dresses cast onto Canoe’s wrought-iron like so many five-star towels … a school of fish too old to spawn but desperate to swim back upstream.”

Though their days and years now run parallel courses, they started out a disparate bunch. Louise is the brittle daughter of Detroit autoworkers; Viv, who attended Smith on scholarship, aspired to become a scholar of modern literature before marriage and motherhood intervened. Bambi’s career as a concert pianist was cut short by a disabling illness; now, out of loneliness and frustration, she makes comically unsuccessful “Breaks for Freedom” (“vaguely purple hair, an invitation, denied, to the UPS driver for a cocktail”).

However, the individual women don’t stand out in one’s mind. They merge together, a collective emblem of the compromises and achievements of their generation.

Miss Walbert is the author of the acclaimed 2001 novel “The Gardens of Kyoto,” and teaches writing at Yale. Like her characters, her prose style is consistently elegant and possessed of a surprising strength — due in large part to the novel’s authoritative, first-person-plural narrative voice. Here is how the narrator (who remains unidentified throughout) describes her little world:

“Know that we are a close-knit community. We’ve lived here for years, which is not to say that our ancestors are buried here; simply, this is the place we have all ended up. We were married in 1953. Divorced in 1976. Our grown daughters pity us; our grown sons forget us. We have grandchildren we visit from time to time, but their manners agitate, so we return, nervous, thankful to view them at a distance.

“Most of us excel at racquet sports.”

As the brisk tone of this passage indicates, “Our Kind” could not be more different from the mush-fest that is the typical “women’s novel” published today. Like most women (but contrary to cultural stereotype) Miss Walbert’s can be cagey towards each other, and often hesitate to speak about their most private feelings and memories.

One member of the group, the DuPont heiress Suzie, has begun an affair with a Brazilian woman named Carmen. “As a little girl, Suzie’s said, Carmen had no shoes and her father beat her raw. We know at one time there were rickets, crossed eyes, lice;” and the sentence concludes with a delicious zing: “we know too much, actually, and have asked her to cool it.”

Nor do they regale each other with salacious details of their sex lives. When a character uses the word “lover” in conversation, it jars: “Lover is not a word in our lives, nor in the lives of anyone we know: It’s too animal, somehow; too raw. It suggests dime-store novels and intrigue, everything impractical.”

So unsentimental is Miss Walbert’s approach that her narrator bristles slightly at the thought of the other women being her “friends”: “We were company, perhaps; women of a certain age with shared interests. But friends? It seemed too intimate, somehow, wrong.”

Yet for all its sharp delights, “Our Kind” is flawed by the author’s over-reliance on suicide in her plot. Three characters kill themselves; in a fictional world of only about 20 people, that strains believability. And since all three of the characters are minor ones, their deaths, serving no real function in the story, seem arbitrary and unduly morbid.

Of course, the mother of all modern literary suicides is Virginia Woolf, whose influence can be felt throughout the book. In one of the stories, “Sick Chicks,” Viv organizes a reading group for terminally ill women at a local hospice.

The novel she assigns them is (what else?) Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” which ends with a suicide. It receives tepid praise from one participant (“I liked the party,” she says) but leaves another cold. “I like a good story … Austen knew how to tell a story,” proclaims the magisterial Mrs. William Lowell (who “prefers, she said at our first meeting, the honorific”).

Viv’s heart sinks at this comment. Still, Mrs. William Lowell has a point. The best Woolfian passages in “Our Kind” convey a startling, aching beauty: “Here within our narrow woods, we let the rhododenrons canopy, and the lilac stray to weed. Our homes are hidden by trees and boxwood hedges, forgotten reliquaries … for our kind.”

Yet for this reader at least, it’s Kate Walbert’s keen-eyed social observations (not unlike Jane Austen’s) that really sparkle. I look forward to more of them in her next book.


By Kate Walbert

Scribner, $23, 195 pages

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