A Feminist novelist's wimpish misgivings and rebirth

April 16, 1995|By Rebecca Pepper Sinkler | Rebecca Pepper Sinkler,Special to The Sun

"Drinking the Rain: [a memoir]," by Alix Kates Shulman. 242 pages. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $20

Henry Thoreau went to the woods to live deliberately. Alix Kates Shulman went to an island to write a book. But in the course of her stay, the natural world so engaged her that she lost the urge to write, or for that matter, to do anything but live deliberately. Ten years later, she tells us where she lived and what she lived for.

It's a great American tradition, going back to nature, testing the soul against the soil. I don't mean to say that Shulman underwent some great physical ordeal. Her woods were gentle ones on an island off the coast of Portland, Maine, an island she had visited begrudgingly every summer with her husband and their children until the kids were grown and the marriage dead.

Though her summer cabin lacked electricity, plumbing or telephone, the real ordeals were internal. At 50, Shulman was in a garden-variety midlife funk, "calculating how many years and decades had passsed since certain events had occurred, noticing people's ages and achievements, comparing mine with theirs . . . feeling increasingly anachronistic, en route to obsolete, RTC as gradually, I became infected by the world's insidious opinion of aging women."

The feminist novelist, known for her 1970s novel "Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen" and a biography of the anarchist Emma Goldman, felt dismayed, even ashamed of her wimpish misgivings. Hadn't other women - Mother Jones, Emma Goldman, even some of her own best friends - remade themselves heroically at midlife?

So off she went to be reborn. Rebirth's a tall order for anyone. But for a late 20th century New York professional, with a calendar full of meetings, assignments to be filled, a stuffed mailbox, a ringing phone, causes to be joined, public statements to be signed, a steady flow of visiting writers, urgent conversations to be held with friends, rebirth in solitude was hard labor. When your only taste of isolation has been the pampered pleasure of a writer's colony, you are in for some chilling surprises, like waking at midnight to the tap tap tap of the roaming, knife-wielding hacker - a sound that turned out to be only a songbird ferociously attacking a window.

But as the city slicker overcame some initial terrors, her confidence grew, particularly as she began to look to the island to supply her wants. By far the best parts of this amiable if earnest memoir are those in which Shulman discovers the bounties of her small island. A woman with a lifelong romance with food, she starts with the obvious, the mussels and clams that are there for the picking, the familiar raspberries and huckleberries, but then she comes across a book on edible plants (by that other born-again tree-hugger, Euell Gibbons) and begins eating her way through a remarkable, ever-expanding salad of delights - rose hips, fiddlehead ferns, goldenrod, sheep sorrel, charlock, bay leaves, Scotch lovage, goosetongue, sea rocket and on and on through the flora and fungi that "encompass a great cornucopia of edibles in perfect ecological balance spiraling in circles downward to the sea within a ten-minute radius of my hearth."

Like all good food writers, Shulman has you salivating for dishes you've never dreamed of. Not only that, but she knows when to stop: just as you begin to wonder how much more you can take of the joy of jewelweed, Shulman cleverly returns to what we suspected was awaiting her, the seductions of the city, the pull of friends and family, the exigencies of earning a living and escaping that dead marriage.

Her memoir covers 10 years, and follows her from the island back to New York, on to Colorado, where she secures a teaching job that frees her each summer to return to her island. Shulman rejoices in her growing self-sufficiency, her awareness of who she is and how she wants to live: more sparely, more in tune with nature. Aside from an ecological reverence that amounts at times to a tic - she can't eat a clam without fretting about the planet - it's an impressive and appealing journey.

Less appealing are her score-settling with Jerry, the husband she heartily loathes, and her breathless portrait of a new lover - obviously still too new for Shulman to describe with any degree of distance or credibility. In fact, Shulman fails to convey convincingly anyone but herself. Friends, family and islanders drift in and out, as shadowy as Shulman fears they may be. She dreads, as she contemplates writing her memoir, that it may be "a meditation on solitude, first-person solipsist." You bet.

But then perhaps that goes with the territory. "Walden" didn't exactly have a cast of thousands. In the last few years, women have produced some of the more interesting meditations on solitude. Alix Kates Shulman's "Drinking the Rain" makes a small but valuable contribution to the genre.

Rebecca Pepper Sinkler recently retired as the editor of the New York Times Book Review, where she served for 10 years. Before that, she was book editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, where she also wrote a column on books. She is working now, among other things, on a nonfiction book about a women's literary group of the 1930s.

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