Review by Elaine Hughes, professor of English at the University of Montevallo
Many readers may not recognize that Anne Whitehouse is a Southern writer. Well, Southern in that she was born and grew up in Birmingham. She has spent most of her adult life in New York City, where she has pursued her career as a journalist, essayist and primarily, a poet. Author of The Surveyor's Hand, a collection of poems, Whitehouse has ventured into the fiction genre with Fall Love, her first novel.
The story is set in late 1980, takes place over a period of five months, and explores the lives of four young people, all in their twenties, who live in New York City. Althea Montgomery, Jeanne Mann, Paul Carmichael, and Bryce Crawford, his lover, share apartments and beds, friends and social circles, careers and calamities, disappointments and ambitions. Through a convoluted series of coincidences and happenstances, Whitehouse manages to weave an interlocking web among the disparate lives and natures of these four characters - all who aspire to things they cannot identify and search for things they seemingly do not understand.
Althea and Paul, she a "plastic artist" and he a dancer, find each other quite by chance in Riverside Park and on the streets of the neighborhood where they live. Jeanne and Bryce have careers they have fallen into, more by their choice to live in New York than by goal or definition: Jeanne in theater management, Bryce in law. Their lives become entwined when Althea impulsively invites her new acquaintance Paul to join her for a late summer holiday on Block Island, at a retreat she has rented to work on her paintings. She finds herself deeply interested in Paul, "although the evidence told her that he preferred his own sex." She extends her invitation only to Paul and not to his companion, Bryce, who, coincidentally, is out of town. Paul, hurt because of Bryce's sudden return to his home in Meridian, Mississippi, accepts Althea's offer. They are joined soon on the island by Althea's lifelong friend, Jeanne, and thus begins the journey that puts these four characters on a collision course towards something, though no one seems aware of where, or why, they are going.
Often by coincidence, perhaps by fate, these characters are hurled together - by the beauty of a strange face discovered in a crowded theater audience, by the interlocking of eyes and brush of a shoulder in a crowded subway car, by a lost letter and unanswered phone call, by the slip of a hoist on a city street - into a rushing tumult of emotions. Their passions, artistic and sexual, thrust them into tempestuous relationships that challenge their expectations of themselves and of others. Althea's need for solitude compels her to retreat to Block Island for a respite from her teaching duties in a public school and for the settings in nature that she hopes to capture in her art; her sexual desires propel her into the arms of Paul immediately upon his arrival. Paul's search for his artistic identity and for a sense of fulfillment pushes him into choreographing his own dance and into the field of critics; arrows; his anger at Bryce's sudden leaving catapults him into bed with, first, Althea, and then with Althea and Jeanne together. Jeanne, seemingly the most traditional and controlled of the characters, allows her adulation of Althea to disguise her own identity and places her in a compromising role as Althea's friend and her rival; she, in turn, seems to find her true self when she repels her inhibitions opens herself to experiences outside Althea's realm. Bryce, who had escaped the South and his family, goes home for the most sacred of Southern rituals - to attend the lingering death of his favorite uncle - and discovers again the reassuring, and painful, bonds of family.
In the novel, Whitehouse sets up a classic scenario of the travail of a fledgling artist who seeks a critique of his work in anew form by his peers. Paul, driven by his creative urge to be creator and choreographer of his own dance, asks his fellow dancers and their director or preview his solo dance, Savage Landscape. The dancers' euphemisms of "interesting," "unusual," "different'" demolish Paul, but Kurt Matthews, their director, reassures him:
Readers may have the same response to Whitehouse's first venture into the novel form: parts of it, especially the heavy reliance on coincidence to propel and then resolve the plot, may "plain annoy" them. However, there will be no doubt that her poetic handling of language and of sensuous detail is superb; in her descriptions, especially, of the intimacies of lovemaking, she is at the same time graphic and subtle, provocative and sensitive; in her portrayal of the unspoken emotions - about death and its aftermath, of fear, of pride, and of hurt - she conveys powerfully the cruel effects of all those coincidences of life. Anne Whitehouse's Fall Love is to be admired for her willingness to take those risks.