What Mary Ann Knew

Only Children

by Alison Lurie
Random House, 259 pp., $9.95

For at least the last two decades, the desire for sweetness has been a pervasive national hunger. We have tended to see whatever time we are at the moment living through as threatening, feverish, hectic, perhaps dangerous. Our genius is the exile’s or the fugitive’s; we’re always packed to go.

And so we turn to the past, not only as the Modernists did for its reverberations but for its surfaces as well. We look to the objects of the past for tenderness; hence the appeal of Camp. “Camp is a tender feeling,” Susan Sontag tells us. It allows us our belief in the innocence of objects, and makes concrete to us one of our most treasured faiths: the dead had it easier than we do. Didn’t they have to, if they drank from those glasses, wore those gloves, sat on those couches, painted those signs? The objects of the past may seem pure to us as our own cannot.

A large part of the appeal of Alison Lurie’s Only Children, which takes place in 1935, is that Lurie gives us objects of the past that we can crave: gas-station-sign horses with wings, coolie hats, sundresses, Franklin cars. And she uses Thirties diction with such deftness that it becomes itself an object. People have “ants in their pants,” and “one too many,” and are “parlor Pinks.” Dan Zimmern says his wife is “getting all worn out keeping up with my sex drive.” Friends are described as being “good at figures,” enemies are told to “tell it to the Marines.” Swimmers worry about waiting an hour after lunch to go into the water and parents worry that their children are “underweight for [their] height and age groups.”

Alison Lurie’s view of the world is always permeated with irony but she also satisfies our taste for past sweetness by a highly intelligent use of novelistic tactics—by setting her novel in the safely distant but rememberable past, and by making her central characters children. She has thus allowed herself to write in good faith about an innocence that readers may value, about a simplicity they may not feel bound to disbelieve.

Lurie also sees that innocence of diction or of objects does not necessarily lead to innocence of behavior. Her novel takes place on a particularly hot Fourth of July weekend. There are two couples, the Zimmerns and the Hubbards, and their daughters, Lolly and Mary Ann, who go to visit Anna King, the unmarried headmistress of the daughters’ progressive school. As the weekend goes on, everyone behaves badly, except Lolly who never behaves badly because she is too frightened and too absorbed in the life of her own mind.

Lurie is wonderful about the terrifying effect that adult bad behavior, drunken and sexual, has on children. When adults are children, children have to be adults, and that is dreadful for them. “Grown-ups were supposed to act grown up. When they didn’t, it could be lovely …

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