Three women and the nature of separation and relationship

April 17, 1994|By Anne Whitehouse

Ellen Clayton, the heroine of Valerie Martin's new novel, is a veterinarian at the New Orleans zoo who performs her job with diligence and dedication. At 40, the wife of a history professor and the mother of two teen-age daughters, she seems, to her husband, Paul, to have "the patient look of one who has survived a great passion."

Paul, on the other hand, feels trapped at 47 in their comfortable domestic life. He is in love with the young, entrancing secretary in the history department. During the 20-year marriage, Paul has led a secret life of affairs. Unbeknown to him, his wife knows all about them, but until now he has never felt impelled to jettison his marriage for his mistress.

Ellen and Paul's divorce is juxtaposed to what Ellen refers to as "the great divorce" -- the separation of human beings from nature. Ellen is a thoughtful woman who is given to much musing about the false sentimentality of people's attitudes toward the natural world and its wild creatures. "How ironic that the only animal capable of appreciating natural beauty is the one bent on destroying it, the only one capable of actually creating ugliness," she reflects.

Paul is wrong, however, when he imagines that Ellen no longer loves him. She loves him passionately, but his abandonment of their marriage destroys her love and changes her in ways she could not have predicted.

These transformations in Paul, Ellen and their two daughters are exquisitely delineated by Ms. Martin. Not only are the character depictions completely convincing, but she also allows us to sympathize with each member of the family. Even Paul, who selfishly sacrifices his family's happiness, attains a kind of grandeur when he realizes the cost of his new life.

He . . . risked his happiness, because the sensation of being torn was sweet to him, and it became finally a part of the way he loved Ellen. . . . As he got older, he became incautious, overeager . . . he was aware of a futility, a desperation he knew was neither youthful nor attractive. The first movement had ended. There was a moment of silence; then the languorous, sad, mysterious adagio began. Paul sat at his desk wistfully holding the photograph of the woman he had loved for twenty years. . . . He had torn his life in half.

Ellen's story is alternated with two more-tragic women's stories, which contrast with and echo one another. Set 150 years apart, )) they both concern women who have tried to bridge "the great divorce" at the cost of their sanity: Both of these women believe that they are turning into black leopards.

The case of Elisabeth Boyer Schlaeger, "the catwoman of Saint Francisville," sentenced to death in 1846 for the murder of her husband, is a historical curiosity that captivates Paul Clayton. Although he decides to write a book about the case, Elisabeth's story is told as a straight third-person narrative, except for Paul's solution to the mysterious murder.

Naive and high-spirited, accomplished and beautiful, Elisabeth marries a rich German newcomer in order to avoid the match her parents have planned for her. Schlaeger, however, turns out to be a cruel, sadistic husband. His destruction of her spirit and sanity is a Gothic horror tale.

The case of Camille, the 19-year-old keeper at the New Orleans zoo where Ellen works, is even more heartbreaking because it is mundane and realistic. Plain and friendless, Camille lives with her alcoholic mother, who constantly berates her for being a failure. When she is not at her job or at home, Camille slips into loveless and sometimes brutalizing sexual encounters with men who are barely acquaintances or else strangers.

Camille's job is "her salvation." For her it is a "world of strict routine and responsibility, the world in which, though she was surrounded by large, dangerous, and temperamental animals, she felt safe." Camille suffers from a personality disorder: She imagines she is turning into a black leopard like Magda, her favorite among the zoo's big cats.

In previous novels such as "Set in Motion" and "A Recent Martyr," Ms. Martin has written with great power and conviction about the thrall of masochism and passivity, about people who are drawn to a kind of sexual self-destruction. Her fiction is typically dark and erotic; her women often find an attractive power in their helplessness.

In this sense, "The Great Divorce" is a departure for Ms. Martin. There is nothing erotic about Camille's encounters with the rude and careless men who pick her up, and she knows it all too well. She longs for the most minimal affection, which again and again is denied her.

Nor is there anything erotic about Elisabeth Boyer's relations with her bullying villain of a husband. Though born to wealth and privilege, she discovers that she is no less her husband's chattel than one of his slaves.

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