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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 fun for a little while, like driving to the village store Thursday. But if they went on too long, it got sort of embarrassing and awful and even scary,” Mary Ann tells us.

Children’s imperfect comprehension of adults out of control and their imperfect understanding of their responsibilities toward these lurching giants constitute some of the most unsettling memories of childhood. Mary Ann’s perceptions of her parents’ parties call back with great precision all the unbearable scenes we watched through banisters:

Interesting things happen at grown-up parties sometimes. Once there was a man who worked in Bill’s office that could make a noise with his mouth exactly like a rooster, and a noise like a train starting and going away; and another time a lady did a dance with the floor lamp pretending it was some Spanish movie star. Of course she had to unplug him first. Other times people got mad about current events and shouted and swore at each other, usually men. And once when Mary Ann went into the bathroom to get a drink of water there was a man and a lady she never saw before lying in the bathtub together with all their clothes on.

I don’t know anyone who describes better than Lurie does how parents, while unconscious of the burden they impose, can force their children to witness distressing scenes. And she is sharp in her account of a play that Mary Ann and Lolly write and put on for the grown-ups, perfectly capturing the child’s sense of dramatic rhetoric: first you walk on the stage and then you tell the audience you’ve just walked on the stage. Lolly, as the princess, declaims:

Oh, woe is me…I’m in the prince’s country. But everything has gone wrong. My maid made me change clothes with her. And now everybody thinks she’s me. And she’s going to marry the prince. Oh, woe.”

Because Lurie so often captures the landscape and the tone of childhood, when she slips the reader feels badly let down. I have trouble following Lurie when Mary Ann and Lolly indulge in flights of fancy. Mary Ann’s dreamy moralizing fantasies are the least interesting things about her, and it is no help that they occur at the beginning and very end of the book. Children probably do make up stories like Mary Ann’s final one about people who wish for strawberry soda and peach ice cream to come out of the faucets, and who then nearly drown in it and have to be rescued by a flying dog. But the stories that children make up are sometimes not very interesting and it is precisely the excessively quotidian nature of their imagery—strawberry soda and peach ice cream coming out of water faucets—that can deaden their language.

Occasionally, I am troubled by the fact that Mary Ann and Lolly seem too old to have the thoughts they do. Would an eight-year-old say, “A mean bush hurt me,” or refer to the creatures of her nightmares as “spookies”? Even if we grant the difference between the eight-year-olds of 1935, who were indubitably children, and the eight-year-olds of today, who use deodorant and shave their legs, this diction sounds too young, particularly for Mary Ann, whom we have seen to be toughminded. In a novel in which diction is so important, such occasional lapses badly jar.

But diction is a vexing problem when one is writing about children. In The Waves, Virginia Woolf makes her children sound like little mandarins. “I should like a fiery dress, a yellow dress, a fulvous dress to wear in the evening,” says one of the little girls in that novel, when she is even younger than Mary Ann and Lolly. And James’s Maisie often sounds like a short Madame Merle. When talking to her French doll she notes that “she could only pass on her lessons and study to produce on Lisette [the doll] the impression of having mysteries in her life, wondering the while whether she succeeded in the air of shading off, like her mother, into the unknowable.”

We all know that in real life children don’t talk as Woolf and James suggest in these passages, but we are convinced when we read them against the evidence of our common sense. Lurie is probably closer to mimicking the real texture of children’s speech, but the effect is less successful than the obviously artificial constructions James and Woolf have made. Perhaps that is because good dialogue, even good interior monologue, does not resemble real speech very much; it resembles good dialogue in other novels.

On the other hand, the talk among the adults in Only Children is sharply revealing, usually damning. When the two men discuss the necessity of chasing women, the scientific Bill explains:

It’s the result of natural selection. For thousands of years men who didn’t chase after women had fewer descendants, or none. So eventually those genes died out.”

Yeah, I get it,” Dan said, pacing. “You mean if you love your wife, but you can’t resist a beautiful babe, it’s just heredity.”

All this is particularly awful since it is Bill’s wife who is the babe Dan can’t resist.

Sex is the snake in Lurie’s garden; it divides the good parents from the bad. The good ones, Mary Ann’s father Bill and Lolly’s mother Celia, are morose and serious and sexually put upon. The bad parents, Dan and Honey, think they are going to have a good time, but Dan is simply incompetent when he tries to seduce Honey, and Honey has been teasing Dan and knows it. As Lurie showed in The War Between the Tates, she is a fine observer of manners, not least when she is a comedienne of sexual failure. Here, however, she is doing something different from what she has already done successfully, and has tried to go deeper. This is the most interior of Lurie’s novels, the most reflective, the most lyrical. Her decision to make children her central characters must have been a difficult step for a novelist of manners. For children do not define themselves by their manners—their manners are their parents’. When they are told to mind their manners, it is not their own manners that they have to mind.

But it should not be surprising that the novelist who once described selfish, lumpish adolescents is here being kind to younger children. There has always been a generosity to her comedy, and it has always centered itself around the importance of domestic life. Children are sentenced to live in the domestic world until they are old enough to escape it. In Only Children, Lurie makes it clear why they want to escape. Their safety there is temporary and uneven. The grown-ups aren’t always in charge. Even during an innocent July weekend in 1935 they weren’t. Perhaps they never were.

  1. *

    Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp,’ ” Against Interpretation (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1966), p. 292.

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