Waking up on the dark side of friendship

Solstice, by Joyce Carol Oates. New York: E. P. Dutton Inc. 243 pp. $15.95. Some of what's taken for friendship these days -- even for love -- ought to be seen for what it is: an elemental desire for control on the part of one partner.

The disguise seems especially effective if it's a bond between two women. Moviegoers got a good look at the phenomenon in ``Julia''; a more complex insight in ``Entre Nous''; and a slightly happier, or more ``normal,'' resolution of it in ``The Bostonians.''

While some watching those movies may have missed what they were seeing, the filmmakers surely knew what they were saying.

In a nice change of pace from her three genre novels -- and a marked departure from her earlier novels of protest -- Joyce Carol Oates visualizes a female ``friendship'' in fashionable contemporary surroundings. She explores the lives of her characters (as her publisher happily puts it) in an ``uncanny response to their erotic tension and psychological entanglement.''

The book begins, unprepossessingly enough, with an account of the past assurance and present self-doubt of the younger and less-formed of the two women. Monica Jensen, once a high school ``golden girl'' and now a numb and bewildered divorcee of 29, isn't entirely captivating. But she does try to be honest with herself. She has come to rural Pennsylvania to teach in a private boys' school and start a new life.

Across this uncertain sky explodes the exotic self-assurance of Sheila Trask, a little older, a lot more accomplished (in fact, a painter of some renown), and unbelievably hungry for a friend. She is ``fascinating'' in a familiar way: reckless, unpredictable, elusive. Also quite capable of outthinking her guileless catch, and of bullying while she charms. Monica has all she can do to keep from being bowled over; but she is bowled over, all the same. (This sort of thing is never fun to watch. But one knows all the feelings.)

Just as you start to wonder how much of this Monica is going to take (or how much you are, for that matter) -- at nearly the midpoint -- Monica begins to awaken and to resist. The writing has been craftsmanlike . . . the backgrounds carefully delineated . . . the characters, if not sympathetic or notably original, at least minutely described. But now you start to care. Some moral grappling may lie ahead.

``Solstice'' is defined on the back of a most beautiful dust jacket as ``a furthest point, turning point, or point of culmination.'' Part of the intrigue now is to try to tell when you're there. You think: This is it; then, THIS must be it. Later you look back and see a series of turning points -- like notches on a ratchet, tightening the rope, tighter, then letting it loose, a notch at a time. You look back again to see that the end was known from the beginning, just as the book's misty opening lines from Emily Dickinson said.

What is it that is Monica's failing? She's not dumb. She's not unaware. Is it just that she's got to be quicker on the uptake? -- quicker to realize what she's letting happen?

Much of it has to be inexperience. Monica needs the author's shrewdness beside her, out ahead of her, not trailing behind, recording.

But her story becomes our experience. It's a useful warning to anyone confronted with domination: You can't fall asleep at the switch, and you must somehow find it within you to make the ratchet hold. There'll be little help from circumstance -- and none from the one on top.

Monica's struggle takes place in interwoven worlds which Oates re-creates with relish and familiarity: The whole world of art (you feel she's been waiting her chance); the private-school life, and teaching; the life of the Bucks County gentry; what Sheila refers to as pub-crawling on the highways. (Her instinctive attempt to demoralize Monica by means of the grungy pubs fails; but among the cool gentility, it works savagely well.)

``Solstice'' demonstrates once again that the tie that binds ain't necessarily love. The fight to rule ourselves may face more of us than we think. And to keep on fighting you've got to keep awake.

Dayis Muth is a reviewer and writer living in Boston.

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