Do not go serious into that funny night

Rhode Island Blues By Fay Weldon Atlantic Monthly Press 325 pp., $24

In a different time, Fay Weldon would have been burned at the stake. The queen of English satire is a tyrant in the battle against sentimentality. She outlaws pomposity, banishes pettiness, and beheads political correctness with a swoop of her rapier wit.

Beware: She's extending her conquest. "Rhode Island Blues" is the first of her novels to tackle the United States, and, significantly, it's about retirement living. America may want to imagine it's a culture of youth, but its fastest growing demographic group is over 80. As Americans begin negotiating the largest generational transfer of wealth in the history of humanity, "Rhode Island Blues" is right on the mark.

The novel opens with the words of Felicity coming over the transatlantic phone line at 2 in the morning: "Nothing stops me now, not prudence, or kindness, or fear of the consequences. I am 85. What I think I say."

Bold Felicity is talking from Connecticut to a very tired granddaughter in London named Sophie. Hearing of her grandmother's recent hospitalization, Sophie thinks, "I felt the tug of duty and the goad of guilt and the weight of my ambivalence: all the emotions, in fact, commonly associated with dealing with family. She being my only relative, I felt the burden more acutely. I loved her. I just wanted her far away and somewhere else."

Sophie is a successful film editor, who knows how to clip, splice, and dub miles of raw celluloid into a satisfying story. But the narrative of real life is not so easily manipulated. Abandoned by her father and grandmother and left with an insane mother who hanged herself, Sophie has plenty of reason to prefer neatly edited fantasies to the complexity of real life.

She wants to believe she's satisfied in hip singlehood, hobnobbing with Hollywood directors and attending parties with "a whole new race of slender, shaven-headed, just-about-non-gay men in dark clothing." But the truth is she yearns for a family and relatives and all the encumbrances and responsibilities her married friends complain about.

So, when her grandmother calls for help choosing a retirement home, Sophie drops her work and flies to America, despite the lingering threat of rebel hostility (1776) and Lyme disease.

She and Felicity tour the usual assortment of disinfected wards before coming upon The Golden Bowl Complex for Creative Retirement, a lavish facility based on Jungian psychology and self-help mantras. "What do Golden Bowlers do?" the residents chant each morning in the Ascension Room. "We live life to the full!"

Weldon's satire begins to move with the steady determination of a crowd of Wal-Mart shoppers on Senior Day. The 60 residents live happily (as required) under the cheery tyranny of Nurse Dawn, a Dickensian character who might permanently enter the mythos of retirement living.

Vigorous and healthy, Felicity is delighted to pass the entrance test, but quickly suspects the Golden Bowl is "a CIA training ground for surveillance techniques and psychological warfare." (She resists their militant optimism by leaving a book called "Salad, the Silent Killer" in the dining room.)

Back in London, Sophie starts investigating the trail of her rumored relations. She eventually uncovers two money-hungry cousins who make her wonder if cultivating the family tree is worthwhile after all. Unfortunately, she also drags us through a thicket of dreary family history that's sad but never very compelling.

Meanwhile, Felicity begins dating a shady character who raises the ire of her comically obnoxious neighbor and the ever-watchful Nurse Dawn. Her love affair smashes every bleak stereotype about age - or love.

When Weldon refers to "the continuation of mirth, that most precious of nature's creations," she might as well be talking about what's best in her own novels.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor, charlesr@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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