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Book Review : Liberated Women --How They Did It

Heart’s Desire by Gwyneth Cravens (Knopf: $16.95)

How strange that a book set in 1969 should, by now, have become something of a historical novel. “Heart’s Desire” is just that--the history of how and why the women’s movement got started (as seen through three women of different ages and stages in life), why the movement needed to happen, what--in case we’ve forgotten, or are too young to remember--it gave to women who were locked in the slavery of hopelessness with no weapons at all except women’s “wiles.”

Does this introduction make “Heart’s Desire” sound like something you don’t want to read? Look again. This is a book men should read; it’s shamelessly real. Gwyneth Cravens tells almost more than she should about how relentless women can be when they need a man, how cavalier they can be when that need has been met.

“Heart’s Desire” takes a year in the life of a middle-American family. Effie is married to Tom: they are the “older generation” here. Effie (since they live in the American Southwest) has made a kind of pseudo-ranching life style her motif. She doesn’t live in a tract house, it’s an “adobe hacienda.” She favors fiesta dresses with yards of rickrack. And, thank God, a Southwest life style leaves plenty of room for margaritas during TGIF parties. Her dour husband, Tom, works making bombs for the government and is tuning up for a heart attack.

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Tom and Effie’s Children

Effie and Tom have three kids: Nancy, a smart girl on the edge of adolescence who dreams of adventures in outer space but is slated for secretarial school; Bud, a dimly perceived high school senior who’s headed for Vietnam, sure as shooting; and the older brother, Tommy, who’s pushing 30 and enrolled in graduate school. No older son has been touted so long and so hard with so little evidence of concrete achievement since Biff in “Death of a Salesman.”

The reader wonders why ? Poor Tommy is an obvious lemon in the great used-car lot of life. Why doesn’t his mother see it? Why doesn’t his wife see it? The sixth character here in this family drama is Judy, Tommy’s wife, treading water with one year of college, treasuring the advice an anthropologist once gave her to observe at least one concrete thing a day. She considers herself lucky to be part of this family, because she, Judy, has a real name, Rosario. She doesn’t have to wear rickrack because she really is Spanish-Indian; her family came to the wedding in pick-up trucks. Judy, upwardly mobile through a “good” marriage, keeps quiet, counts herself lucky. She forms tentative friendships with the cheerful Effie (who always says “Dadgummit” instead of what might more naturally come to mind) and her young sister-in-law, Nancy, who’s both terrified and eager about the matter of becoming a woman.

Then Old Tom croaks. There it is--he’s dead. What does it mean? For one thing, it means that everyone in this made-up family in this made-up little house must have been leaning on him far harder than anyone knew, since all collapse. Effie’s relentless cheer continues for a while, like a transistor radio left on until the batteries go dead, but we learn what’s underneath the cheer, and something of the fury she can barely conceal. Poor Tommy no longer feels it necessary even to pretend to “be in school,” or to be intelligent. Bad things-- more bad things--begin to happen. Poor Bud is shipped out, in more ways than one.

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The women--Effie, Judy, Nancy and baby Maura--are left to fend for themselves.

Still Has a Chance

Dadgummit, they’re dumb, inept, pitiable, out-of-it, unprepared, unwilling and unformed! Nancy fares best because she has to do least. Judy finally begins to notice that she’s not as “ugly” and “demanding” as her husband has been saying for the past five years--although she never quite gets around to noticing that she’s psychic. (What good would it do her anyway? The world has little demand for such things.) It’s Effie, who’s had to depend for so long and so hard on a man (who strongly wanted to be somewhere else for most of his life), who has to start unraveling a yarn-ball of existential bad faith bigger than the Ritz, to begin to look at what was really going on in her past. She has misspent the first half of her life. Poor Tom was completely destroyed by the demands of femininity and reproduction on the one hand and a government gone mad on the other. But Effie still has a chance, if she tells the truth and pays attention.

“It was definitely not my plan to be a liberated woman, girls,” Effie tells the rest of them as they set off on vacation, alone, without men. “But I must say, it’s really nice to pick up and go when you want. You don’t ask permission, you don’t have to talk anybody into it. You just do the thing. Talk about freedom. . . .”

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