Roiphe, Russia, shopping, escape

November Fiction

November 16, 2003|By Donna Rifkind | Donna Rifkind,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Anne Roiphe, Russia, shopping, escapeAnne Roiphe has concentrated almost exclusively on women's issues in a literary career spanning more than 30 years. In such books as Up the Sandbox and Married: A Fine Predicament, she has teased out the strands of feminism, motherhood, marriage and career that make up the complex tangle of women's lives. It's interesting, then, that her latest novel, Secrets of the City (Shaye Areheart Books, 352 pages, $24), directs its attention to the concerns of a man - specifically, a fictional Jewish mayor of contemporary New York City.

Originally published in serial form in Manhattan's Forward newspaper, Roiphe's novel stars Mel Rosenberg, a good-hearted and popular public servant who manages to avert every disaster that threatens the city. One by one, this nebbishy superhero thwarts a terrorist plot to lace the food supply with lethal amounts of psychotropic drugs; settles both a transit strike and a scandal involving his friend the parking commissioner; mediates a murderous dispute between Arab and Orthodox Jewish teen-agers; and survives a hostage attempt.

In the end, because of its serialized format, Secrets of the City is too episodic to have much momentum as a novel. But it is enjoyable as a kind of Bonfire of the Vanities lite, in which just about every civic stereotype is affably satirized.

*

Katherine Shonk is a first-time author whose sojourn in Russia in the late 1990s has yielded a sophisticated collection of short stories called The Red Passport (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 224 pages, $22). Shonk's Russia is a vertiginous mix of self-centered expatriates and dazed natives who are trying either to negotiate through their chaotic new landscape or to escape it altogether.

In "Our American," two young Moscow brothers - one a former soldier in the Chechen war - try to persuade a flighty American girl to take them home with her. "My Mother's Garden" features an old woman living near Chernobyl who doesn't understand why the supersized onions in her garden are too dangerous to eat. In "Honey Month," another American girl fails to convince her Russophile boyfriend to leave Moscow for their honeymoon in Prague. Shonk's tales are stuffed with pungent details and smart dialogue. In their cliche-deflating worldliness, each of them delivers as much satisfaction as a full-blown novel.

*

From Nick Hornby to Allison Pearson, British authors of perky comic novels set in London have become something of an elite club. A less well-known member is David Flusfeder, whose novel The Gift (HarperCollins, 320 pages, $23.95) has already been published with some fanfare in the United Kingdom. Flusfeder has bravely chosen a subject not much discussed in novels with literary pretensions: shopping.

His protagonist, Phillip, is a former soccer star who works part-time as a writer of instruction manuals, while his wife handles most of the finances and the raising of their twin daughters. Phillip's already shaky self-esteem is further threatened by a steady barrage of thoughtful and expensive gifts from his wealthy friends Barry and Sean.

Each gift inspires Phillip to purchase a competing gift that he hopes will balance the scales, but which instead provokes only pitying condescension from Barry and Sean. Flusfeder's book has exquisite comic timing as well as something honest to say about the shamelessly acquisitive nature of middle-class life.

*

Dreamy and lyrical, Maxine Swann's first novel, Serious Girls (Picador, 240 pages, $23), is a coming-of-age story about Maya and Roe, two starry-eyed 16-year-old girls who pursue misguided romantic liaisons. On weekends, they leave the confines of their boarding school for the excitement of New York, where Maya meets Arthur, a 32-year-old art critic with whom she begins an affair. Meanwhile, Roe takes up with a local boy named Jesse.

In the summer, Arthur takes Maya to Paris, where she eventually decides to escape from his constricting control, while Roe and Jesse embark on a driving trip that ends when Jesse's turbulent behavior becomes abusive. Like many an adolescent adventure, Swann's novel flirts with danger but leaves its innocent heroines luckily unharmed.

*

The New England writer Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), friend of Emerson, Thoreau and George Sand, is the subject of art historian Barbara Novak's first novel, The Margaret-Ghost (George Braziller, 192 pages, $19.95). Fuller is a mesmerizing historical figure, a bold intellect who wrote influential essays on abolition, women's rights, Transcendentalist philosophy, art and literature. Yet her story is somewhat obscured here by Novak's narrative, which is commandeered by a silly modern-day professor named Angelica Bookbinder, who is researching a book about Fuller's love life.

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