Why Do Old Fools Fall in Love? Ask Newly Gentle Fay Weldon

This new novel is several kinds of love story with multiple happy endings-but the author still makes her readers sweat.

Rhode Island Blues , by Fay Weldon. Atlantic Monthly Press, 325 pages, $24.

Critics and readers alike tend to put Fay Weldon’s fiction in a box. “Barbed,” “wicked,” “enraged,” “unsparing,” “iconoclastic”-this litany of terms and their equivalents are usually invoked to describe her work. Rating her as the mistress of slash-and-burn wit and the shocking set piece, as a die-hard feminist and an observer and instigator of the war between the sexes, her audience seems to prize her talent for satire over her humanity. What will fans make of her new novel, Rhode Island Blues ? Will they see a kinder, gentler Fay Weldon or a dragon defanged?

For Rhode Island Blues , a new descriptive vocabulary suggests itself-words like “congenial,” “charming,” “compassionate,” “touching.” This latest novel is several kinds of love story with multiple happy endings. Its themes are family, connection, aging, memory and luck. Ms. Weldon’s famous bite is unimpaired. She keeps a determined grip on her material. Happy endings there may be, but she makes her characters and readers sweat for them.

Her protagonists-grandmother Felicity Moore and granddaughter Sophia-are engaged in a quest for happiness; but Ms. Weldon raises the odds against success and good fortune at every turn. With every step forward, her heroines are dragged back by the past, faltering under the weight of knowledge that stifles fragile confidence. Watching them hesitate between growth and stasis (in Felicity’s case, the stasis of death) is painfully suspenseful. To give her characters some breathing space while they adjust to the enormity of the past, Ms. Weldon uses an interesting device. At calculated intervals, she places digressions on related subjects (adoption, abortion, chicken-farming, filmmaking, etc.) between passages of narrative. These digressions are clearly intentional and eventually so labeled; it would be a mistake to dismiss them as unedited ramblings.

Sophia, a 34-year-old film editor, is sought after by the best in the business. Films are her medium, her counter to everyday real life: “[R]eal life is all subtext, never with a decent explanation … easier by far to make sense of … uneven footage … to let images on film provide beginnings, middles, ends, and morals.” When her mad mother, Angel, was stable, she took young Sophia to nine films a week. Angel is dead; so is Sophia’s artist father. Editing a feature for director Harry Krassner, she has let him into her bed, clear in her own mind that he only wants to stay with her because he hates his hotel. The only family Sophia has left is her maternal grandmother, 83-year-old Felicity, who is living luxuriously in Connecticut, widowed by the most recent of her three American husbands.

“Eighty-three,” Sophia assumes, “was old enough to keep people more or less in one place.” Out of each other’s orbit for years, Sophia and Felicity like to think of themselves as independent of family ties. Until one day, feeling her age, Felicity asks Sophia to help her settle into a retirement home in Rhode Island. Not just any old people’s home, the Golden Bowl Complex for Creative Retirement is “constructed much in the fashion of the former Getty Museum outside Los Angeles … an inspired version of a Roman villa, pillared and pooled,” a place where freedom for the exploration of the self was encouraged. At the end of Sophia’s visit, Felicity drops a bombshell: At the age of 15, she had another daughter, Alison, and gave her up for adoption.

Tracking Alison down with the help of a detective agency, Sophia imagines herself with a host of ready-made relatives: “If I couldn’t have Krassner, I wanted a family. I wanted to be bolstered up. I wanted to be enclosed.” Within weeks, she discovers Aunt Alison and cousins Guy and Lorna. Then Ms. Weldon begins to pit the fantasy of family against the reality. The reality is almost Victorian in its accumulation of pathetic and horrific detail. Aunt Alison has Alzheimer’s; Guy and Lorna may be an incestuous couple. Sophia’s discoveries, shared with Felicity, trigger Felicity’s carefully buried memories: seduction by her stepmother’s brother; incarceration in a home for unwed mothers; disinheritance; years of living by her wits and accepting money for sex; mad Angel hanging herself, leaving Sophia to cut down the body.

Researching family history has salutary consequences for Sophia: “[M]y obsession with films had lately been faltering.” Digging up the past almost overwhelms Felicity, whose capacity for living in the present once ensured her survival. She receives a proposal of marriage from a man 12 years her junior-shabby, patrician William Johnson, who has fallen on hard times. Nothing in her life has prepared her for loving and being loved. Her previous relations with men had been a form of trade. The stakes are now impossibly high. She can choose to love or effectively shut down. The staff at the Golden Bowl, so permissive at first, plays on her self-doubt. “You can not legally lock [the old] in or restrain their movements,” plots the sinister head nurse, “but in their own best interests you can surely use psychological pressure.”

If Rhode Island Blues points to a moral (and I think it does), it’s that life is a gamble-a cliché if you leave out Ms. Weldon’ s exceptional storytelling. Before every decision, big or trivial, Felicity consults the I Ching . William Johnson is a regular at the Connecticut casinos: “He threw the dice, she threw the coins”-making both of them gamblers. The lesson gambling teaches is not that if you stay in the game long enough you’ll win big; it teaches the willingness to rebound from losing.

The conventional archetype for aging is the wise old man or woman. Ms. Weldon chooses a more daring symbol, the foolish old man and woman, William and Felicity. Ms. Weldon makes a case for aging as a process of liberation, of relearning spontaneity. Her geriatric lovers have let go of the burden of being wise and doing the right thing. Childlike but not childish, they are free to admit that they don’t need, any longer, to try to make sense of the world.

Ann Arensberg’s most recent novel is Incubus (Knopf)