Saturday, May 24, 2008

'World Before Her' bound by stories of discontent

Deborah Weisgall is a well-known arts journalist whose memoir, A Joyful Noise, recounted with touching humor the role music played in her father's life. The World Before Her is her second novel after Still Point, which was set in the world of ballet.

Like with her previous works, the seduction of art is a theme that runs through this book as well. We are introduced to the lives of two women — one, a famed real-life writer, and the other, a fictitious sculptor. Mary Ann Evans, known to the world as George Eliot, the author of such great works as Middlemarch, is in Venice in 1880, to spend her honeymoon with Johnnie Cross, an uxorious American banker.

Mary Ann had a long, passionate affair with philosopher and critic George Lewes, who was married to another woman. The two lived together until Lewes's death in 1878. While she always felt the drain of an extramarital relationship, her bond with Lewes was too strong for her to bother about social niceties. Weisgall writes dreamily of the memories and desires that assail Mary Ann even as she tries to be grateful for companionship now that Lewes is dead:

"George was an actor, and if in memory his features had grown vague, it was because they were so mobile; he was a sprite, a mimic, her marvelous lunatic, her lover….Now, married to Johnnie, ardor had atrophied and weariness had taken its place. Their shell, their connection was pretense, but she was cared for, and she was not alone."

The other story is of Caroline Edgar Spingold, who arrives in Venice exactly a century after Evans—in 1980. On a business trip with her husband, Malcolm, Caroline battles the familiar pangs of doubt and distress over her marriage. Her husband is "commerce", taking care of the finances, while she is "art", capricious and impulsive. Her views on marriage are tainted by her father's long-ago desertion of her mother, Margaret, who continues to be a formidable presence in Caroline's life.

Describing the stories of Mary Ann and Caroline in alternate chapters, Weisgall draws parallel portraits of marital dissatisfaction and the attraction of the fleeting past to nullify the dreariness of the present. Her writing is tender, drowning you into its drunken energy, with the city of Venice providing a tasteful backdrop.

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This review appeared in St. Petersburg Times.

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