By Doris Lessing, HarperCollins; $25.95
Katharine Hepburn was the one who quipped that men and women should simply “live next door and just visit now and then,” but leave it to communist-turned-science-fiction-writer-turned-mystic Doris Lessing to fashion a creation myth based on the gender gulf. Her umpteenth novel imagines a world populated entirely by Clefts, who reproduce asexually and lollop in the waves until they start birthing misshapen Monsters (men). The Romulus-and-Remus myth is close at hand—after the first Monsters are tortured to death, new boy babies are abandoned to the elements, rescued by friendly eagles, and then suckled by does. Soon, two communities are making uneasy neighbors—the Monsters in rude valley huts, the Clefts in caves along the shore—and the reader must have a strong stomach for screaming Freudian imagery. Lessing’s vision is mesmerizing and impressively complete. Ultimately, though, the book sinks under the weight of her shrill catalogues of male (and female) crimes, and it is hard to imagine who other than Andrea Dworkin would enjoy this misandrist fable of a female-only line of progenitors.
The Great Man
By Kate Christensen, Doubleday; $23.95
Christensen, whose In the Drink came out at the height of Bridget Jones mania, long ago cast aside the chick-lit albatross. Her fourth novel opens with two biographers sniffing around the life of the late New York figurative painter Oscar Feldman—an egotistical specialist of the female nude who left behind a wife, a longtime mistress, and a chain-smoking lesbian sister with more talent than he had. The clever and incisive novel that follows is about haughty but frustrated Abigail; bohemian mistress Teddy; and Maxine, who can only be played in the movie by Fran Lebowitz. Christensen seems fascinated by aging, and the tension between her characters’ colorful pasts and the yearning (sexual and otherwise) of their latter days is heartbreaking. But these women brim with a wit and personality that overshadow the cocky artist around whom they’ve orbited. It’s an oddly feminist twist, epitomized in one of Teddy’s asides: “When a man is tipped off-balance, there’s nothing easier than knocking him over.”
By Nancy Horan, Ballantine; $23.95
A word of advice for the type of reader who runs screaming from gauzy titles, book-group discussion questions, and set pieces that seem ready-made for Weinstein and Co.: Keep reading. Horan’s account of the affair between Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Cheney, the freethinking wife of one of his Oak Park clients—and its devastating conclusion—hews as close to the facts as the narrative can bear, but no closer. And when it builds up steam, like the Chicago-Madison express Wright takes to the magnificent home he’s built for his lover, it’s a glory to behold. This is the story from Cheney’s point of view, but it’s neither a shrill revisionist feminist novel nor a bodice ripper. Wright’s arrogance and Cheney’s conflict over leaving her family are always on display, and at its heart this is a book about one of architectural history’s most difficult relationships. Without that core, all of Horan’s beautiful descriptions would merely amount to what Wright hated most—window dressing.
Crooked Little Vein
By Warren Ellis, William Morrow; $21.95
If you’re looking for an antidote to the stifling formulae of genre fiction, this could be your book. But be warned: The first sentence has a rat pissing in our protagonist’s coffee cup, and that’s about the most normal thing that happens. It’s a detective story, and the plot is loony, involving the retrieval of a secret Constitution that U.S. presidents are supposed to pass on to each other. Ellis, a highly regarded graphic novelist, continually drives the reader to the edge of exasperation with his fetid imagination, and then, just as one’s thoughts turn to hurling the compact volume across the room, delivers a winning bit of totally bent humor.
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Swim to Me
By Betsy Carter, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill; $23.95
Some books are perfect summer reads, idle distractions on a July afternoon; others, like Carter’s second novel, Swim to Me, seem more temperamentally suited to late summer, a time when we are still dreaming of (sometimes even going on) vacation but are also filled with that nervous-hopeful energy that precedes fall and heralds, we hope, change. The book is a delightful escape, but its message is anything but escapist. It’s the Nixon seventies, and 16-year-old Delores Walker, whose father has left his family in the Bronx, decides that she has to leave, too: A first-class swimmer at the Y, she is off to achieve her dream of becoming a performing mermaid at Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs. Carter’s memoir, Nothing to Fall Back On, was subtitled The Life and Times of a Perpetual Optimist, which may explain the at-times-hard-to-swallow good will of almost every character in the book; even circus elephants get to better their lot here. But Delores’s quest—all that sleek, underwater striving—is a sweet, laudable fantasy of good-hearted upward mobility.