Victorians dying to get into cemetery

From the author of 'Girl with a Pearl Earring,' an ill-timed novel that mocks excessive grief

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The tragedy of Sept. 11 has thrust some new novels into a painful state of relevance that their authors could never have anticipated. Dennis Bock's "Ash Garden" asks us to consider the complexities of delivering a devastating military response to a surprise attack. David Adams Richards's "Mercy Among the Children" provides a painful consideration of the costs of peace in the face of assault. And Orhan Pamuk's "My Name is Red" explores a murder set against the clash of Western and Eastern values.

But if world events endow some new titles with unexpected pertinence, they also render others almost obscenely inappropriate. Tracy Chevalier has ridden this wheel of fortune up and down. Her first novel, "Girl with a Pearl Earring," was a prominent member of a group of unexpectedly popular, well-written novels about Vermeer that came out in 1999. But with "Falling Angels," her timing - and the quality of her writing - couldn't be more different.

The story is set in London, between the deaths of Queen Victoria in 1901 and King Edward in 1910. Most of the action takes place in a cemetery heavily decorated with "preposterous monuments - ostentatious representations of a family's status, granite headstones, Egyptian obelisks, gothic spires, plinths topped with columns, weeping ladies, angels, and of course, urns."

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Two families meet one day while visiting their plots. Gertrude Waterhouse is a shy, proper woman married to an equally conservative husband. Their wildly dramatic and sensitive daughter Lavinia quickly befriends Maude, the daughter of Kitty and Richard Coleman. While the two girls scamper around the grounds with the son of a gravedigger, the Colemans and the Waterhouses make small talk, and the wives discover they have absolutely nothing in common.

Kitty is a sharp, creative woman suffering from the repression symptomatic of her elevated class. Boredom makes her alternately depressed and caustic, liable to say shocking things to straitlaced Gertrude, who's far more comfortable in her assigned role as dutiful wife.

Though the two women rarely meet again, their daughters, now neighbors, become fast friends, eager to visit the cemetery as often as they can. Lavinia even writes a manual "to help out other girls who may have questions about the correct etiquette for mourning."

In the shadow of the world's current crisis, it's difficult to imagine that anyone will enjoy this novel's light satire of the macabre pleasures of excessive grief. But the problems here are more than circumstantial.

Struggling to find something to lift her above a bad case of fin de si├Ęcle, Kitty pursues an affair with the director of the cemetery while her maid also enjoys conjugal visits among the graves. Indeed, there are enough sex-death associations in this novel to cure a good Freudian's depression. Kitty's granite mother-in-law, for instance, remarks, "When my husband and I were married, he brought me to the cemetery to show me the family grave, and I was all the more certain that I had chosen well in a husband."

In any case, after Kitty's affair ends badly, she throws herself into the nascent women's movement, embarrassing her husband, her mother-in-law, and apparently, the author. Chevalier's portrayal of the suffragettes sounds as if it were composed by someone who throws up his hands and curses "those crazy women drivers!"

As Kitty gets more involved with the cause, she ignores her husband, neglects her home, and abandons her daughter. At the novel's climax, blind devotion to her comically strident mentor causes a child's death. (Well, what do you expect when women start getting ideas in their heads? Attention, Phyllis Schlafly: We've found a novel for your book club.)

It's not as though the feminist movement, then or now, is beyond reproach. Fay Weldon carried it off with considerable nuance and wit just three years ago in "Big Girls Don't Cry." And fans of Kate Chopin may see "Falling Angels" as a thematically chaotic imitation of "The Awakening" (1899), a classic tale about the costs of female repression and freedom.

These problems are compounded by the novel's structure, a series of short first-person testimonies from family members, servants, and cemetery employees, sprinkled across a nine-year period. The effect is elliptical, like watching the neighbors through a broad-board fence. We catch only glimpses of them, often glimpses that are called upon to convey enormous amounts of information, feeling, or dramatic irony.

The youngest characters in the story suffer most from this process, as they're forced to speak with a kind of precocity that approaches literary child abuse. Seeing her new friend, for instance, seven-year-old Lavinia exclaims, "We were such kindred spirits that I understood immediately she meant we should meet there in ten minutes."

No, Lavinia, you must wait more than 10 minutes to speak like that.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send email to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

Falling Angels

By Tracy Chevalier

Dutton

324 pp., $24.95

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