Howatch novel sacrifices philosophy for story

January 13, 1991|By Rebecca Warburton Boylan

SCANDALOUS RISKS. Susan Howatch. Knopf. 386 pages. $21.95. In "Scandalous Risks," Susan Howatch's fourth novel about the Church of England, the author herself takes a risk. Begun in 1987, these thought-provoking glimpses into mankind's moral and ontological quests have been told through the perspectives of various male Anglican priests. But "Scandalous Risks" unfolds through the eyes and heart of a laywoman, and not just any laywoman but the daughter of a lord -- an atheist lord. The time: the '60s.

One element that makes followers of Ms. Howatch's church novels eager for the next one is that they largely are about the same group of people. However, truth's perspective on their lives changes with each book because each is told through a different first-person narrator. Time also moves forward in each, although flashbacks afford transitions between the historical eras.

Another compelling element of these spiritual but universal books is the soul/mind searching that Ms. Howatch challenges her readers to engage in along with the characters. "Scandalous Risks" is just what it sounds like -- a rather sordid love story. But it is not love that is sordid, but rather the story. Conflicts reveal how those involved in illicit affairs manipulate morality and knowledge in an attempt to resolve problems happily.

This time the narrator is Venetia Flaxton, who falls in love with Neville Aysgarth, the narrator of Ms. Howatch's third novel in this series, "Ultimate Prizes." Aysgarth has just been appointed Dean of Starbridge Cathedral (setting of the first novel, "Glittering Images"). He is in his 60s, married and a priest. Venetia is in her 20s, single, rich, bored and lonely; she views herself a failure in all that matters to her.

Aysgarth, a self-made draper's son, is a loner in the ecclesiastical crowd. He is liberal low church in a conservative high-church world. He is married to a woman who still excites him physically, but who exhausts him emotionally and leaves him unsatisfied intellectually.

What brings this pair together is John Robinson, whose radical theological work, "Honest to God," brought Venetia to explore religion and Aysgarth to test it. According to Robinson (who lived from 1919 to 1983 and wrote largely during the '60s), "Love makes everything right."

So begin the scandal and the risks. Aysgarth risks marriage, family and career. Venetia risks hurt and self-worth. These are the known risks. The hidden risks are much more terrifying, and consist of those emotional and moral ties that are as strong and complicated as any that exist between two people whose love for one another is nurtured by more than sex.

Ms. Howatch believably portrays the anguish that arises when the "I shouldn't but I need to's" conflict powerfully. However, her weakness also is revealed. "Scandalous Risks" is more story and less intellectual dialogue than the previous three titles. While Ms. Howatch's strength is her ability to instill interest and suspense within heady discourse, her weakness is her development of a story without enough of this.

The risk Ms. Howatch takes in broadening her narrator's perspective reveals her liberal and universal outlook, but the price is giving up the intensity and fervor of the more spiritual and intellectual focus of the earlier titles. However, I remain eager for the fifth novel, told through the perspective of Nicholas Darrow, the son of an earlier narrator.

Ms. Boylan is a writer living in the Washington area.

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