Plain's 'Her Father's House' contains no mansions at all

On Books

August 04, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

Readers of this column know that from time to time I go in search of what makes a particular writer of mass commodity fiction so vastly popular. I set about the search again with Belva Plain's 20th novel, Her Father's House, (Delacorte, 342 pages, $25.95) -- aware that there are 25 million copies of Plain's books in print.

From the outset, Plain writes in a kind of studied near-graciousness, in a narrative voice that seems almost Edwardian. There are very specific descriptions of people -- not only of their hair, their eyebrows and their clothing, but also the details of the world around them. It's the sort of pleasing brush-stroke specificity that the culture theorists claim has been driven out of literature by movies and television.

The main character is one Donald James Wolfe, who, in 1968 when the book commences, is a 25-year-old freshman associate in a white-shoe New York law firm. A North Dakotan who grew up on a farm, he is diligent, ambitious, dutiful, favored by a name partner. Quickly the tale begins to rattle with cliches.

Donald -- people go by first names in this narrative -- meets Lillian, a secretary, in a Manhattan park. In 31 hours they are in bed and involved -- though with no detail that would distress your most lavender-sacheted maiden great aunt. They move in together in a new apartment. All is hunky dory. Donald reaches his sixth year in the firm, gallivanting globally with top partners, executing international litigation and negotiation of the most sophisticated sort.

He is made partner and immediately proposes to Lillian, whose past is a deep mystery. Even though they've lived together for some six years -- reader, suspend disbelief! -- she has never discussed her family, ostensibly on nearby Long Island, except to say her parents are dead and the other relatives are boring. He has never met her boss, a high-flying lawyer for glitterati, who gives them a very expensive Danish silver service for 12 as a wedding present.

Soon on, their marriage sputters. She grows demanding, avaricious -- a yowling social climber among New York's tawdriest instant rich. The level of naivete of this guy is never examined, explained or made believable. This is a comic book in prose.

Leapin' lizards, Sandy!

Lillian bonds with this ostentatious, superficial, sybaritic crowd. She becomes pregnant against her intent. As Donald begins to discern that all is not well, Plain writes, "He looked at her. Even though the afternoon sun was falling full upon him, he felt a wave of chill. We don't know each other. I don't know her, he thought. And it was as if these last few lovely weeks had never happened." They'd been together six years. This perception is delivered without prior context, as a cartoon panel.

In the third month of her pregnancy, they are on a grand tour in Italy, where she had spent considerable, more than somewhat mysterious, time before they met. Now she defiantly sleeps with at least one other man whose name she declares herself proud not to know.

Inevitably, Donald and Lillian are divorced.

Her ex-boss's ailing wife has conveniently died and he marries Lillian. Donald turns up at the hospital the day the baby is born. He gives Lillian uncontested full custody of the child, ambivalent about the whole thing -- a New York international corporate super lawyer living like a hayseed high school sophomore. Ex-boss surrounds Lillian with luxury and a nanny for the kid, Bettina.

Holy paterfamilias, Batman!

It's corny. It's superficial. It's illogically conceived. It is dramatically ridiculous. But it moves swiftly. There is an energy and flow about the action, the clipped dialog. It kept me going when I expected to have to fight to read on -- the dynamics of a cartoon sequence. There is economy of motion. By keeping Lillian's past and proclivities murky, sinister and unraveling them in bits and slivers, Plain sustains a tension. But overshadowing it all, there is the unrelenting implausibility of everything.

Donald sees his daughter in the park with her nanny, and begins to obsess. Learning that Lillian has been dropped by husband number two and has taken up with rich Eurotrash, Donald goes bonkers. I'll kidnap the baby, he decides, run away forever, change identity and all else about life. No alternative is considered.

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