A Heavy Legacy

Edith's Diary

by Patricia Highsmith
Simon and Schuster, 348 pp., $8.95

The Stepdaughter

by Caroline Blackwood
Scribner's, 96 pp., $6.95

“He said that he had found someone who loved him much more than you ever had. He said that he loved his new girl much more than he had ever been able to love you.”

“I am…bitterly sorry,” Brett said gently, firmly, and with a kind of clenched-teeth desperation, “but I don’t see anything honest to do but tell you—and to hope somehow that you’ll agree to a separation.”

We have heard these words, or words like them, in countless movies, novels, songs, and soap operas. They are the refrain of the man walking out, making his second bid for true happiness, leaving the woman stranded in the first and only act of her hampered life. These two particular quotations come, respectively, from Caroline Blackwood’s The Stepdaughter and Patricia Highsmith’s Edith’s Diary, and in both of these books the shabbiness of the man’s behavior is underlined by a curious legacy. The man’s second chance is actually paid for by the woman, who picks up the pieces of the ruined first chance. The abandoned wife in The Stepdaughter is left not only with her own small child but with her husband’s daughter from an earlier marriage: Renata, a fat, helpless thirteen-year-old girl—“She had the pathos of those hopelessly flawed objects which one often sees being put up for sale in junk shops.” The wife in Edith’s Diary is left not only with her own sloppy and irresponsible son but with her husband’s Uncle George, an old man who refuses to go to a nursing home and who gradually becomes messily incontinent.

These burdens, once accepted, allow the husbands to quieten their consciences. They have provided for their dependents, and they are always ready to pay in cash the debts they won’t pay in affection and actual presence. There is nothing to be said for these men—particularly when, as in Edith’s Diary, they start accusing the women of negligence in their care of their charges. Even if there were negligence, what right would they have to complain? And yet of course the central question in these books is not the man’s behavior but the woman’s. Why does she put up with Renata, or Uncle George? Why take on, and keep, these troublesome bequests?

There are no quick and easy answers to this question, and behind it lurks another one. For if Renata and Uncle George are lumpish figures of what a marriage may leave behind, images of pure dependency, pictures of what your children might be if they were not your children, they are also striking portraits of people that nobody wants. It is only slightly too dramatic and metaphorical to say that both of these novels are about abortion, or the question of what to do with lives you can’t find a place for in your life.

Edith Howland, in Edith’s Diary, actually writes on abortion, taking one of those sensible, heartless liberal stands on the grounds of the threat of overpopulation (“But we also live on…

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