Unlike some younger novelists in the thirtysomething set, Scott Spencer (Endless Love, Waking the Dead) doesn't specialize in emotional detachment. His best-known protagonists are obsessed romantics, and Spencer, fascinated with their intensity, renders them in prose verging on purple. You never know when the characters or Spencer's writing will spin out of control.
His new novel, Secret Anniversaries, is thinner, less expansive, and much more elliptical than the others; you don't feel the blood pumping through it. Part of the reason is Spencer's enigmatic, less-than-fiery heroine, Caitlin Van Fleet, a small-town beauty raised by her servant parents on the grounds of a lush Hudson River estate in the days before World War II.
Caitlin has grown up restrained and repressed by the town's conventions (and pretensions), by her rigid scrub- Dutch parents, by her father's incestuous tendencies. After a turn in the sheets with the son of her parents' employers, Caitlin is sent to Washington to work for a congressman whose German sympathies seem to worry everyone but Caitlin, who doesn't seem to care much about war or peace. What interests her is Betty, a coworker. Their affair lasts until Betty and the congressman die in an air crash arranged by the Nazis because he has abandoned their cause. Caitlin mourns Betty. But, strangely, she doesn't mention comparable feelings for any other woman during the rest of the novel.
Later, Caitlin joins two Americans who are tracking down the German responsible for the plane crash. She falls in love, or, more accurately, enters into a complex, ill-defined relationship, with a Jewish reporter trying to expose fascist groups. She helps him, in some vague way, with this task and eventually has his child. They drift together and apart (see whether you can tell the difference). He wanders the world, again for reasons that are ill defined.
Eventually, Caitlin must explain her life to their son. Readers will wish her luck.
Despite the vagueness of much of the novel, there are some stunning episodes. In the incest scene, Spencer shows us a desperate man's temporary comfort in the face of all he has denied himself. (''His long face was raw from a cold-water wash and the scrape of the straight razor. . . .Desire came to him like a traveler from a distant land: he didn't understand its language.'') Like Caitlin, we sense her father's sadness and his shame. Spencer's way with Betty and Caitlin's love scene is equally impressive. You can almost feel the warmth of the sheets on the rainy night when the two women, after months of hesitation, fall into each other's arms.
Outside the bedroom, Spencer's portrait of Leyden, Caitlin's hometown, captures the grim countenance of an upstate community where lives are drab and tempers as sharp as the social divisions.
But the political scene in Washington is less convincingly drawn. The world of German sympathizers in America (and those who pursued them) is promising ground, yet Spencer only skims its surface. Like the themes of incest and ambiguous sexuality, it is introduced but never explored.
The final blow to the novel's credibility is the revelation at its close that the tale is being told by Caitlin's son. Are readers really expected to believe that Caitlin told her son all of the intimate details necessary for him to write knowingly of her physical relationship with Betty? It's not that she would be ashamed to do so, but these scenes particularly (and the book as a whole) are filled with the kind of memories and observation that no person could possibly communicate to another.
It's a tired ploy, a signal that Spencer may simply want to extricate himself from a novel where the execution has fallen so far below the conception.