Typical first novel from an atypical writer

Home Front, by Patti Davis, with Maureen Strange Foster. New York: Crown. 231 pp. $15.95. In many respects, ``Home Front'' is a typical first novel, in which an impressionable young person has sought to distill her experience of growing up in a family to which she feels she belongs, just as she knows she is different from it.

It's untypical in that Patti Davis's parents happen to inhabit the White House.

Literary qualities aside, many will find that this book's chief interest lies in the insights it provides into people whose celebrity makes us feel we know them and whose political importance is such that we not only think we know what they're like, but that we care for them. Yet this is so typical a story of generational alienation in the 1960s and '70s that it has value quite distinct from its roman `a clef insights.

The story is set against the background of the Vietnam war and the protest movement. As Robert Canfield, a supporter of the war, rises to national prominence -- first as governor of California, later as a presidential candidate -- he and his wife Harriet find their daughter Beth's antiwar activities an increasing embarrassment. Harriet is particularly distraught. She is not the kind of woman who believes in letting it all hang out, so to speak, although she is touchingly anxious to familiarize herself with all the latest slang, which she gets just slightly wrong.

Although Beth is depicted as a young woman misunderstood by her parents, the novel's tone is far from petulent or self-pitying. Beth is presented neither as heroine nor victim: She is simply a person of some sensitivity and imagination growing up among people who, whatever their other virtues, have very little ability to imagine being anything but what they are.

``Home Front'' is not Patti Davis's ``Mommie Dearest.'' It is, rather, a very recognizable kind of first novel based upon sensitive observation and inspired by the writer's need to reflect and react to the circumstances that have shaped her sensibility. It provides a familiar, sharp, believable group portrait of a family: the genial, but ever more distant father; his devoted wife, whose energies and sensitivity have been channeled single-mindedly into his career; their impressionable, independent-minded daughter and her disengaged younger brother.

Beth, whose character is the most completely portrayed, is hardly a representative ``activist.'' She is not interested in ideology or in drastically alerting either society or herself. Violent tactics repel her. Radicals who insult Vietnam veterans disturb her sense of fair play. She is, indeed, if there be such a person, the typical American student of her times, representative not of radicalism, but of the mainstream of decent citizens who were increasingly appalled by the consequences of this particular war.

That Beth's own parents consider her either an extremist or the hapless tool of extremists is a rather disturbing indication of the limitations of their perceptions. We may well wonder if the real persons upon whom these fictional characters are based have an equally limited view of their opposition.

For, almost more than she may have intended, Ms. Davis's portrait reveals these limitations -- the ``plastic-ness'' that politicians like her father are often charged with. And after all, no one can testify to this better than an insider.

In forming our own opinions, we can be grateful that Davis has been honest and courageous enough to share with us the unique insights she has drawn from her special vantage point.

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