Gene Lyons
April 20, 1990 AT 04:00 AM EDT

His Little Women

type
Book
Current Status
In Season
author
Judith Rossner
genre
Fiction

We gave it an D

When it comes to shaggy-dog stories, Judith Rossner’s novel His Little Women resembles nothing so much as an overweight Saint Bernard pup: full of energy and not without a certain ungainly charm, that is, but apt to wear out its welcome long before it comes plodding to a weary stop.

The author of seven previous novels, Looking for Mr. Goodbar among them, Rossner this time out recounts the muddled saga of famous Hollywood producer Sam Pearlstein and his four daughters from three marriages. ”I grew up in Beverly Hills,” begins narrator Nell Berman, ”where beauty was particularly esteemed while its old partner, truth, was held in about the same esteem as anyone’s old partner was held. If I now set out to tell the truth about our family and the libel suit that made us famous, it’s not because I’m foolish enough to believe that the truth will set me free.” What Nell hopes for instead, she makes clear, is some kind of acceptance and understanding of her own life and the mess her polygamous father and novelist half-sister have helped her make of it.

But few things disappoint like a storyteller who fails to keep promises. From that quite auspicious start, His Little Women meanders off into an overlapping maze of subplots, digressions, and narrative blind alleys. The reader is left bored, bewildered, and wondering how an author of Rossner’s evident skill can have written a novel that so much resembles the wretched fictionalized autobiography with which most novelists start their areers, the kind in which things happen not because they make any sort of narrative or thematic sense but because, well, they happened.

Doubly confusing, in this instance, is that the relationship between novelists and their intimate lives happens to be precisely what Rossner’s story purports to be about. ”If the storyteller pretends to be lying and the liar pretends to be telling the truth,” Nell muses at one point, ”are they more similar than we think they are, or even more different? In everyday life, Louisa told more of the truth than anyone wanted to hear, but she also made up little stories and embellished true ones in funny, harmless ways.” A potentially fascinating theme, laden with potential ironies. Yet when the long-promised libel trial finally comes, it turns out to have almost nothing to do with the relationship between Nell and her novel-writing half-sister-and precious little to do with their faithless but charming knave of a father either. Rather, it hinges upon an accidental resemblance to a minor character of whose existence the defendant (much less Rossner’s readers) was hardly aware. And that just isn’t fair. D

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