Can a woman have both a fulfilling career and a storybook family life? If you're looking for answers to this wearisome question, check out the manifestos by everyone from Betty Friedan to Caitlin Flanagan. If you want to see the dilemma smartly dramatized in the experience of an appealing, intelligent heroine, read Rachel Pastan's crisp novel, Lady of the Snakes.
Jane Levitsky is a literature professor whose subject is a fictional 19th-century Russian, Grigory Karkov. Jane is particularly intrigued by Karkov's tempestuous relationship with his diary-writing wife, Masha, a tragic figure who died in her 30s after bearing him six children. Juicy career-making secrets lurk in the marital saga of the Karkovs, and Jane is poised to unearth them.
Jane is living out her own domestic saga, which includes a resentful husband and a needy baby daughter. Their house is a mess; dinner consists of jarred sauce on spaghetti; their first babysitter quits; the next is a little too alluring. Can Jane crack the Karkov mystery and keep her family together? This setup is patently contrived; not so Pastan's spot-on depiction of Jane's struggle, ''moving from one self to another, from professor to mother, like a silvery fish heaving itself onto land to become a frog.'' To her credit, Pastan makes it seem well worth the effort. A-