Women in Love

Violet Clay

by Gail Godwin
Knopf, 324 pp., $10.00

I Sent a Letter to My Love

by Bernice Rubens
St. Martin's, 197 pp., $7.95

As she says in the first sentence, Violet Clay is a painter. On the morning that the book begins she is doing the fine touches on her 200th cover for a Gothic novel, the 200th girl fleeing a hideous old manse. To execute that theme so often requires ingenuity; Violet has borrowed from everyone “from Giotto to Whistler.” She muses on the last lines of Windrift Woman: “I saw his dark eyes soften, his grim mouth relax into a smile. It was then I knew there would be no more black moods of indecipherable melancholy…. I felt the love in every line of his frame flow into mine, and I knew we would belong to each other now and always.”

Violet begins to speculate on that “always,” on Miss Windrift’s domestic life with Derek, when he is no longer “Derek the Stranger.” She will redecorate the drafty mansion, and appropriate the tower room for her own, “to discover herself.” Among other things she will start to paint, using Derek, who is mortified, as a model. They will have a child, but discover that children are very hard to paint. Then sex starts going flat. Finally she flees captivity to seek “new salvations, new starts.”

This is the kind of funny, amiable ramble that Gail Godwin does very well. There are other moments like it: an imagined press interview when Violet is a celebrated artist, a vicious little vignette that occurs when Harrow House Gothics dismisses Violet because they have decided to decorate the covers of their romances with Diane Arbus-type photographs.

After she is sacked, Violet goes home and heads for the vodka.

I switched on the radio,…and there was Duncan Pirnie, chiding me in his mellifluous older-brother voice that it was already forty-five minutes past cocktail time. A lot of happy alcoholics must listen to WQXR in the late afternoon…I took a deep swig of the icy vodka, thinking of Jake because it was he who taught me to keep it in the freezer. By such trivia do our old lovers return to haunt us.

Violet can be a droll, wry woman. Such characters are not easy to write, but one would follow them almost anywhere. Violet could be a distant cousin to Jane Clifford, the passionate, ironic heroine of Godwin’s The Odd Woman. Perhaps because of its greater length that book had a confidence and a looseness that recalls Doris Lessing’s wonderful garrulous coffee- or wine-drinking sessions in The Golden Notebook or The Four-Gated City.

But Godwin has rigid plans in mind for Violet Clay that have much to do with new salvations and new starts. They turn out disappointingly schematic and nearly as predictable as the plot of a Gothic novel. Violet has come to New York City from Charleston with a background impeccable for literary purposes. Her father went down with the Lexington during the Second World War. Her mother, still in her teens, promptly went sailing during a storm. They brought…

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