Dreams of young women one devoted, one obsessed

April 25, 1993|By Nancy Pate | Nancy Pate,Orlando Sentinel


Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.


199 pages. $19.95. When cousins Angel and Lara first meet as children, plain, bespectacled Angel is so enchanted by pretty, vibrant Lara that she gives Lara the pearl brooch her grandparents gave her for her birthday. When they next meet as young women, Lara is still wearing the brooch but tells people at a party that it belonged to her dead mother. Angel forgives her instantly, but Angel's mother Helena is more censuring, just as she was when she discovered long ago what had happened to the brooch:

"When Angel confessed that she had given it away, both grandparents had not been dismayed but delighted by the child's generosity. Only Helena had been angry, with Angel for giving and Lara for taking."

Angel gives, Lara takes. The pattern established in childhood follows the cousins into adulthood. It is the essence of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's graceful new novel, "Poet and Dancer," so named after Angel and Lara's young -- and unfulfilled -- dreams.

Angel stops writing poetry because she is consumed by the practical duties of looking after her grandparents and divorced mother, with whom she lives in New York City. Self-involved Lara doesn't have the staying power to train as a professional dancer.

When Lara moves to New York, ostensibly to become an actress, An gel is her most adoring audience, even when Lara begins an affair with Angel's father. (It's incest only by marriage: Lara's psychiatrist father and Angel's mother are brother and sister). And Angel remains loyal to Lara despite Lara's increasingly erratic and self-destructive behavior, which threatens both their lives.

Angel and Lara have what is known in today's jargon as a co-dependent relationship. Fortunately, Ms. Jhabvala -- a novelist Three Continents," "Heat and Dust") and screenwriter ("A Room with a View," "Howards End") -- is not a psycho-babble author intent on analyzing her characters. She is a storyteller, and "Poet and Dancer" reads like a modern fable of love and obsession.

Although the focus remains on Angel and Lara, Ms. Jhabvala also includes the story of Angel's friendship with Rohit, a young man from India whose devotion to his delinquent older brother echoes Angel's relationship with Lara.

And when Rohit confides in Angel, his words are like a portent:

"For years and years Mummy said, 'He'll change, he's only a child, wait till he grows up.' But it got worse; worse and worse."

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