Mother Chose the Wrong Life
February 18, 1991
By Judith Grossman

Judith Grossman is the author of the novel Her Own Terms

By Sarah Gaddis. 315 pp. New York: Atheneum. $19.95.

A father-daughter idyll turned sour is the theme of this elegiac first novel by Sarah Gaddis.  Born in December 1955 in New York City, its heroine, Rollin Thompkins, plays the role of favorite child in a privileged circle of artists and their sophisticated friends, much as Bloomsbury's Angelica Bell had done in an earlier generation.  Rollin's father, Lad, is an American writer of vast and difficult fictions, and those in the know say of him:  "But Lad -- c'est un genie. "  To which her mother, Sally Ann, a pretty Southerner with no Europhile pretensions, responds:  "I don't speak that language."  Theirs is an uncomfortable marriage, held together for a time by this adored and beautiful only child.

The sound of Lad's typewriter -- an image of modern cultural brutality -- dominates the household.  Wreathed in cigarette smoke, he sits at it, obsessed and unresponsive, while Sally Ann is patronized by his friends and assaulted on the New York streets.  After a decade or so, her patience exhausted, she leaves him for a mere decent chap.  And thus Rollin becomes a princess in exile among limited minds.  Her mother's new man goes in for boring hikes and tasteless decor; soon a mess of half siblings appears, and for Rollin it's all too clear:  "Her mother had chosen the wrong life."  But every summer her father, together with her godfather, Douglas, Lad's millionaire classmate from Harvard, carries her off to Fire Island or to Peninghen, the artists' colony Douglas has founded on a country estate.  Rollin forms a predictable allegiance to the two men, in whose world prestige, confirmed by Guggenheim fellowships and invitations to Yaddo, joins with the amenities of wealth, from large houses in superior landscapes to fine cooking by the loyal black servant.

Appropriately, a romantic plot ensues:  Douglas, dying tragically, bequeaths to 17-year-old Rollin the Peninghen estate, along with an income, so that she can fulfill her wish to be a painter.  Here she will undergo inner ordeals on the way to finding her own artistic vision; that achieved, she will meet her destined partner and be liberated from the sphere of her dominating father to begin a new life.

There is a familiar ring to the narrative coinage of "Swallow Hard," and to the representation of the artists at Peninghen:  they drink, they smoke, they utter cryptic remarks about spirals, they make breakthroughs:  "She started, she moved, the air got stronger, the paint and her energy and the color, the color a smell of its own, the smell of living in it."  The business of artistic creation is a killer subject, and remains so despite the urgent sincerity of Ms. Gaddis's writing.  On the other hand, her evocation of the ambient details of Rollin's complex world is intimate and assured.  Even the more familiar material gains an updated energy from her adroit handling of close-focus, rapidly shifting narrative angles.

The figure of Lad himself stands out for its singularity as a portrait of a writer who is almost grotesquely impeded in his utterances away from the typewriter.  He resists all speech and, when compelled to it, often avoids completing his sentences -- which, given their severe banality, becomes understandable after a while.  Virtually without expressiveness, wit or linguistic play, he seems to have wrung the neck of eloquence with such thoroughness that the verbal environment around him has become impoverished.  No wonder, then, that Rollin becomes a painter.

Yet the wounded heart of this book is found not in the studio but in the unmastered feelings between daughter and father.  For the child, the quest for acknowledgment begins early, as she studies his rare surfacings:  "Rollin watched him, waiting for some signal, some glance; but often he didn't see her and turned back towards his work without a word."  Still, at other times he reads to her, teaches her the Greek myths; clearly enough love comes through to establish a bond.  Once Rollin passes adolescence, however, she comes under her father's judgment as a woman, and that means she can no longer be taken seriously.  The best he can do is to approve her good looks -- "At seventeen, she was built the way his mother had been built" -- and to indulge her.  He will not insist that she become educated, nor will he care about her work; he simply will not see the point.

The closing chapters of "Swallow Hard" declare Rollin's success at living and working by herself; she even achieves a polite reconciliation with her long-despised mother, at her father's grave.  She has a new mentor now, a sculptor.  He lives in France, he's a genius, an older man, and from way back a friend of -- yes -- Lad Thompkins.  So the old artificer's ghost rides on, haunting her to the last. 

Sarah Gaddis wrote her first novel battling rejection, some of it unearned.  Before beginning the book, she received notice that a magazine had declined to publish one of her short stories -- not an unusual event in the life of a young writer, except that she had never submitted her work to that particular magazine.  "It was obviously a filing mistake, but it bothered me," Ms. Gaddis said in a telephone interview from her home in Paris.  "It was like getting a big 'no,' without ever having asked.  I decided I had to take a bigger risk."

The risk was "Swallow Hard," a novel about a young woman, Rollin Thompkins, whose life revolves around two men:  her father, a respected novelist, and her godfather, a charismatic man of leisure.  "They're going to call it a coming-of-age novel, so I might as well say it," Ms. Gaddis remarked.  "But I think you can do that at any time. . . . Going through a bad marriage is a coming of age, too, which is why I had come to France."

Ms. Gaddis, a 35-year-old American, has lived in Paris since 1983, when she began studying graphic design.  Relocating not only helped her "start over," she explained, but it enabled her to pursue fiction more freely.  "I was supposedly in school," said Ms. Gaddis, who is the daughter of the novelist William Gaddis, "so I could write a novel on the side without admitting it."

The novel is not autobiographical, she emphasized, except in "vague ways."  "I'm a loner like Rollin, but not as fierce.  I hope I'm more feminine.  I didn't have the same elements in my life, and I'm not an only child."  And, while Ms. Gaddis welcomed her father's encouragement, she sees her writing as only slightly related to his.

"Maybe the impatience.  Or the punctuation part of it.  But I think what we do is different."  After a pause she added, "This is a coming-of-age phone call." 
                                                                                 -- LAUREL GRAEBER 

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