Lonely architect looks for love, muses on London

October 20, 1991|By Joan Mooney

CITY OF THE MIND.

Penelope Lively.

HarperCollins.

231 pages. $20.

After the disappointment of her last two books, "Pack of

Cards" and "Passing On," Penelope Lively has come up with a worthy successor to her Booker Prize-winning novel, "Moon Tiger."

The relationship between Matthew Halland and his 8-year-old daughter, Jane, is delightfully portrayed in "City of the Mind." The setting, London, is less a backdrop than a palpable presence, filled with what Ms. Lively describes as "the power of the place, its resonances, its charge of life, its coded narrative."

Matthew, an architect, is recently divorced and quite lonely. Almost involuntarily, he finds himself mentally replaying scenes of the past three years that led to the divorce. It was not a dramatic breakup -- simply the death of a love that had started as overwhelming obsession.

But Jane, who stays in his apartment every other weekend, anchors him to the world of human emotions. She asks myriad unanswerable questions; hesitates over whether to buy a colored pinwheel with her pocket money; slips her hand into her father's, and confides that she loves him and her mother, too.

Since his divorce, Matthew has fallen into an arrangement with Alice Cook, a friend of his ex-wife, in which he and Alice sleep together two or three a times a week. Their relationship is efficient and businesslike, almost exclusively sexual: "It is better than nothing, and entirely unsatisfactory to any who have known better." He sometimes feels particularly lonely when he is with her because they have little in common emotionally or intellectually.

OC As an architect and a person interested in his environment, Mat

thew looks about him with a critical and thoughtful eye. Early in the book, he tells a colleague, "This city is entirely in the mind. It is a construct of the memory and of the intellect." Much of the book shows that the city changes according to who is viewing it.

Matthew frequently finds himself observing the flow of city life: the market at Covent Garden, a young beggar with a child, a particular type of London tree in a city park. He is always aware of the history behind a place -- ironically, since his current architectural project is Docklands, a towering, anonymous, steel and concrete office building that (he realizes) eradicates the whole idea of history. He is not particularly proud of it, but he had pursued the contract because he wanted to go "where the potential seemed to be."

Ms. Lively deals with the evils of city life as well. Mr. Rutter is a real estate developer Matthew encounters in his job. He keeps attack dogs on his large estate and boasts to Matthew that he can evict the last few Bangladeshi shop owners blocking his acquisition of a property by raising their rent 600 percent, and tampering with their electricity if they complain. He is a symbol of evil incarnate, bordering on the absurd, but useful as a jumping-off point for reflections on the extremes to which city life sometimes drives people.

We also see London through the eyes of a glass engraver, a German immigrant Matthew hired to do an engraving for Docklands, and occasionally a few figures from the past: an air raid warden in World War II, a homeless girl, a Victorian paleontologist and an Elizabethan explorer who sailed from England to Alaska. Our glimpses of these characters, some of them nameless, are just enough to give a sense of history to the physical city depicted in the book -- and at times, to present a contrast or an analogy to events in Matthew's life. Ms. Lively sets the tone early on when she says, "We can see nothing for itself alone; everything alludes to something else."

But the story returns to basic emotions -- appropriately, for Matthew is acutely aware that our connections to other people are all we have in the end. The novel contains just a wisp, a promise, of a love affair. (Fittingly, he meets Sarah Bridges through one of those arbitrary but fateful twists of city life: standing in the same line buying lunch at a sandwich counter.)

It is just right. A happy conclusion with all the ends tied up would be too neat and optimistic. At the end, and throughout, Ms. Lively does a superb job of showing how the different parts of a life, and the different lives in a city, connect to one another -- a reason, she makes us realize, for happiness and wonder.

Ms. Mooney is a writer living in Washington.

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