Rowing in Eden, by Elizabeth Evans. Harper Collins. Hardcover, $25.
NOVELS OF MANNERS form a substantial basis of great literary tradition because people have continually wondered at their roles in society. Heaven knows it's no easy task to maintain acceptability, but what happens when the rules become so jumbled as to confuse even the rule makers? That's precisely the situation presented in Elizabeth Evans' engaging third novel, Rowing in Eden.
During the summer of 1965, as the country wavers on the edge of discord, 13-year-old Franny Wahl is likewise poised on the disconcerting edge of sexual awakening. Her sisters, Rosamund and Martie, provide her with conflicting (at best) examples of how to be in the world and especially, one of their major preoccupations, how to behave among males. She is stung when, upon making an awkward mistake, the proper sister succinctly warns her, "We don't do that." Franny, though, like Jane Austen's Emma at Box Hill, is a quick study.
Life in the Wahl household, run by Peg and Brick Wahl (pun intended), has suffered recent social changes itself. "Though no one had pointed out the change, that summer Franny saw that the river of parties and guests that had formerly carried her father and mother atop its dashing blue now had tossed the pair aside. And who did the lively current carry these days? Franny's big sisters ... home from their universities until September."
Luckily, these parents behave themselves like archetypal '60s parents and decide to bury their poor, worn heads in the sand. They eagerly allow their daughters to invite all sorts of friends, male and female, in as "houseguests," exposing their lives to all the complications that situation may encompass. Brick and Peg are also fortunate enough to have quite a supply of sand to work with.
The Wahl family resides at Pynch Lake, Iowa during this troubled summer. In an otherwise unending sea of corn, Brick has found a place to live that least resembles the Iowa farmland that has come to embody the stagnation of his life. As a small-town lawyer, he is doomed to an oblivion that he obscures as much as possible through a thick veil of alcohol. He's a good-time guy until he gets ugly. That's the point at which his wife ("even now, her high cheekbones, chocolate eyes and white-toothed smile attracted comparisons to ... Doris Day") hauls him away from whatever party he's threatening to spoil.
While the parents absent themselves, the children do play, mostly at drinking and sex. This situation suits all involved until one sister transgresses set boundaries and then the sex begins to involve the young Franny. Franny already knows how to French kiss. Unfortunately, her 18-year-old boyfriend has far grander schemes on his mind. It's Franny's task to learn to deal with this dilemma.
Now why, a reader may ask, are these characters so entrancing? Here's another dysfunctional family carrying on in a novel where nothing monumental happens. No one dies. The summer passes and the family remains basically intact and still loyal to each other. There's no doubt that their lives will roll along much as they always have.
The brilliance of this novel lies in the finely drawn portrayal of these characters in this setting at this time in history. Evans shares intimate knowledge of these particulars in the precise descriptive language she uses and the nuanced behavior she describes. Consider this scene during which a previous admirer of the mother, Peg, becomes intrigued with her oldest daughter:
"Rosamund," Mike Zanios looked down at the girl and murmured, "you smell--delicious" ...
Rosamund colored and then Peg tapped her nails on the table--Peg appeared surprisingly frosty--and she asked, "Well, Roz? Aren't you going to tell him you swiped some of your old mom's perfume?"
Dully, Rosamund said, "It's Mom's perfume."
"Ah." Mike ... winked at Peg and said a lively, "No wonder you smell so nice!" and, then, Brick asked if he had ever told Mike the story of how the man on the Miami airplane mistook Rosamund for a twelve year old--
Later, the middle sister Martie whispers to Franny, "Are we supposed to believe a grown man mistook a platinum blonde in a push-up bra and eye-liner for a twelve year old?" Such a superb presentation of tangled emotions! Mom's angry, daughter's exasperated, Mike Zanios is trying to cover up while Brick attempts to convince all present that the girl is still a child, fooling no one but himself.
When family dramas are presented this exquisitely, they will always capture our interests. Franny, at 13, has just the right blend of innocence and distance to tell the story. She's romantic and sensitive, a reader and writer of poetry, from which the book gets its name. Kudos to Elizabeth Evans and her courage to present a novel that relies on no kinks and pulls no punches. In the end, it's a good story, well told.