Kramer's 'Sweet Water' -- Jamesian intricacies

August 30, 1998|By Alane Salierno Mason | Alane Salierno Mason,Special to the sun

"Sweet Water," by Kathryn Kramer. Knopf. 318 pages. $24. One enters Kathryn Kramer's new novel, "Sweet Water," with the pleasant sense of stepping into an earlier time in American fiction, a time delineated in long, gracious sentences and populated by finely tuned characters having nuanced perceptions about their subterraneously complex lives. Kramer's two previous novels, "A Handbook for Visitors from Outer Space" (which earned a front-page critique in the New York Times Book Review) and "Rattlesnake Farming," garnered praise for "elaborate imagination," "big weighty themes" and "precisely expressive language."

These qualities are all evident from time to time in "Sweet Water," but sadly, the book is like a rich dessert that didn't quite set: its texture in parts too dense and in the rest too runny, its dizzying variety of gourmet ingredients coming across too strong where they should be subtle and too subtle where they could be stronger.

This cake has three layers: present-day events set at an abandoned old resort hotel in Vermont that has been adopted as a country retreat by a biographer/professor and his wife, a professional horsewoman; events in the couple's adolescence that involved the woman's first and lifelong lover, an occurence of stigmata when he betrayed her, and a meddling bishop in the middle of losing his faith; and events in the more distant past, centered on the hotel's proprietress, a healer gifted in the use of water cures, and her lifetime epistolary love affair with a great expatriate American writer who could only be Henry James (though he is a bit coyly referred to only as "O.")

The implicit comparison to a Jamesian narrative set up by the discovery of a cache of O's love letters buried in the basement of the hotel sets a high bar for Ms. Kramer's story; but perhaps it's a sign of how much times have changed that she does not trust the reader to draw parallels between that late 19th-century story and the present-day one, but drives the parallels home in ways almost unbearably heavy-handed.

The middle layer of the narrative seems squeezed by compression between the other two: the story of the stigmata hasn't been developed fully enough to be really credible in the world of the novel; it is overburdened with ideas without a convincing sense of narrative substance.

Each plot line, it seems, is rich enough to have yielded something truly resonant and satisfying if drawn out on its own; but as it is, with one's attention constantly drawn to the connections between the several stories and their thematic vibrations - truth, secrets, deception, paternity, mystery, the idealized and the real - the characters themselves fail to gain much sympathy; their sensitivities can seem affectations.

If ambition were rewarded, "Sweet Water" would be a magisterial work. There is some very lovely, elegant and evocative prose, and lines of remarkable psychological accuracy. One has to credit the author for trying something difficult when others might have been content with attempting less in order to be sure of succeeding.

But one also wonders why this sort of a novel would be rushed into print (there's evidence of continuing revision as the book was typeset) when clearly its flaws call for a much more patient overhaul, such as might have been encouraged in a day when people took the time to pen long, passionate and world-weary letters, like those attributed to O.

Alane Salierno Mason is an editor at W.W. Norton & Co., wher she recently worked on Lyndall Gordon's "A Private Life of Henry James: Two Women and His Art" (forthcoming March 1999). She is also an occasional contributor to Commonweal.

Pub Date: 8/30/98

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