Mixed Company

Mountain of Winter

by Shirley Schoonover
Coward-McCann, 256 pp., $4.95

Knights and Dragons

by Elizabeth Spencer
McGraw-Hill, 169 pp., $3.95

August is a Wicked Month

by Edna O’Brien
Simon & Schuster, 220 pp., $3.95

Castle Keep

by William Eastlake
Simon & Schuster, 382 pp., $5.95

A Pile of Stones

by Hugh Nissenson
Scribners, 173 pp., $3.95

Women novelists, we have learned to assume, like to keep their focus narrow. Apart from one or two Amazonian talents they can, and mostly do, leave to their male colleagues the task of assembling those big, bold, empty structures that aim to tell the whole truth about Congress or Madison Avenue. The female observer is happy with fewer properties: between one and four persons, with bruised lives and fine understandings, can be interestingly arranged in and around a Manhattan apartment or Kensington bed-sitter, and provided with a variety of brashly or discreetly erotic motivations. The result will be insubstantial though usually unpretentious; and sometimes it will be actively elegant. But whatever success the author has in manipulating her handful of characters will probably involve stressing their apartness, their seeming abstraction from the world of larger human concerns. That this was not always so the names of George Eliot or Jane Austen may suggest: even when they were most taken up with seemingly feminine preoccupations they were still implicitly enacting the no-man-is-an-island tag so beloved of modern politicians on solemn occasions. They had, in short, a feeling for the community as well as the individual. It would be unfair to claim the women novelists are alone in lacking this feeling, though its lack is often most manifest in them. I have an idea that female writers, in a fervor of emancipated zeal, have accepted too eagerly one of the major premises of modern, or at least, post-Freudian, fiction, namely, that sex is more important than money. This probably goes against the unstated daily experience of a great many ordinary people, as well as against the implicit principles of the major novelists of the last century, who found unending fascination in the cash nexus. In fictional practice, sex is personal and isolating, whereas money is public and unifying.

Of the three women novelists under review, two fall into a fairly conventional pattern. Miss Spencer advances under the drooping banner of Sensibility, portraying a beautiful and cultivated American divorcee, working in Italy and vainly trying to forget her ex-husband, then starting a certain decorous something with a young and energetic visiting American economist. Miss O’Brien boldly waves the opposed though complementary emblem of Frankness: she shows us a young Irishwoman living in London, having given up Catholicism and left her husband, who takes off on her own to find sexual fulfilment on a vacation in the south of France.

Miss Schoonover’s Mountain of Winter, a first novel, is however, a far more impressive and original piece of work. She, too, is concerned principally with a single female consciousness—in this case, that of Ava Knuutinen, a young girl growing up in a remote Finnish mountain community in an unnamed western state—but we see Ava, not as an isolated fragment of humanity, but as a person nurtured in a community at the same time as she is often, and necessarily, at odds with it. The story is dominated by the mountain …

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