AT a time when many novelists, like filmmakers and rock stars, vie to outdo one another in displays of graphic violence, sexual exploitation, and other shock tactics, there is something refreshing - even daring - about a novel that whisks readers back to the discreet and decorous world of Bostonian high society on the eve of the United States entry into World War I.
Susan Minot's "Folly," her second novel, opens in 1917, with its sheltered but intelligent heroine, Lilian Eliot, poised on the brink of womanhood. Although the story unfolds through the jazz age, the stock market crash, and the Great Depression, "Folly" takes its predominant tone from that hypothetical age of innocence, America in the teens.
Indeed, Minot has written a novel that is not merely old-fashioned in the way that a Barbara Pym or Anita Brookner novel is, but that actually reads like a revival of the 19th-century genteel tradition. Each of its 58 brief chapters bears a proper Victorian-sounding title, like "The visitor from New York" or "Mrs. Eliot is surprised," and the language and style would not bring a blush to the most modest of maidenly cheeks.
The chapters are grouped into six main sections, each named after a different character, who, contrary to expectation, tends to remain in the background of the section bearing his or her name. Delicate indirection is the keynote.
In "Mr. Eliot," named for Lilian's stern father, the usually obedient young lady takes the rash step of defying her father's orders when she arranges a secret rendezvous with a dashing enlisted man from New York. Walter Vail is different from the other boys she knows: charismatic, ironic, sophisticated - a disconcerting blend of intensity and nonchalance. They go ice-skating. They walk on the Common. They kiss. Walter seems captivated by Lilian's freshness and wit. ("You're some girl," he tells her.) And
Lilian feels the depths of powerful emotions stirring.
The mysterious and elusive Walter proves a magnet for the welter of feelings that the well-bred young lady has long been wondering what to do with. But, while she is prepared to "understand" his romantically evasive soul, he is not all that interested in being understood. Departing for duty overseas, he leaves more than one broken heart in his wake.
In the second section, entitled "Walter Vail," Walter is firmly out of sight, having stayed on in Europe after the war. Yet he is oddly present by virtue of his absence, as Lilian surveys her other suitors and finds them all lacking the special qualities that Walter seemed to possess.
Lilian finally does fall in love in the third section with a quiet young man whose background and outlook seem wonderfully close to her own. Gilbert Finch, she believes, is someone who truly understands and who will understand her. She wonders now what she once saw in a "frivolous" man like Walter Vail. In Walter's presence, she had felt as if she were being transformed into someone new. With Gilbert, she feels she can return to being "herself, the girl she'd been long ago."
With her marriage to Gilbert Finch (in the section bearing his name), Lilian enters the adult inner sanctum of the world in which she was raised. The little girl who used to wonder what people were actually feeling beneath the bland faces put on for convention's sake now gets to see the full extent of the denial and self-censorship practiced by her kind. She bears three children and is "shocked to discover what a messy business childbirth was - no one had told her - and afterwards she joined the secret c lub and didn't talk about it either."
But something even stranger and less explicable is happening to Gilbert, who is troubled by something he cannot or will not discuss. Lilian looks around at her friends' marriages but cannot figure out what she should expect of marriage in general or Gilbert in particular. Is it normal for a husband to become moody, withdrawn, preoccupied, and reclusive? In a world of ritualized drinking and long silences, where husbands and wives routinely retire to their separate rooms rather than discuss their problems , Lilian is not sure how big their problem may be.
While Lilian has been carrying the weight of her private anxieties, other women in her circle have been suffering in similar silence. The most offbeat of her friends, a frail, artistic type called Irene (the book's fifth section is named for her), turns out to have been far more unhappy than anyone had guessed. At one point she almost confides in Lilian: "I find it's more and more difficult to say something which matches up with what's in my head." She falters, then pulls back, adding, "Isn't that silly? " Irene's tragedy is that no one, perhaps not even herself, sees the trouble she is in - or, more accurately, the trouble that is in her. The unspoken code of what may be said and what must be kept silent has claimed another victim.
In the last section, named after Lilian's nonconformist, now elderly "Aunt Tizzy," Walter Vail returns. Will Lilian demonstrate the truth of Aunt Tizzy's shrewd observation that "even a girl who is not an idiot can behave like one, given the right situation and the right boy"? But what Lilian faces now as a mature woman is no simple choice between two "boys," but the subtler, more complex problem of how to integrate her capacity for intense emotion into a life that holds no real place for it. She cannot really even "choose" Walter - not permanently anyway - because Walter is not interested in making a lasting commitment.
Like the British novelist Anita Brookner, Minot explores the interiorized, Henry Jamesian territory lying concealed in the heart. But where Brookner's passive heroines seem hobbled by oddities of temperament and character, Minot has made her heroine a victim of time and place. In some ways, it may be a little too neat and perfect a solution to set the story in the past: By drawing on readers' stock responses to the period, Minot comes closer to caricaturing history than illuminating it. But her carefully
thought out depiction of Lilian's inner world and of the difficulty of finding an accommodation between desire and reality, silence and self-expression, has a universal resonance.