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Book Review : A Beguiling Examination of Trusting

Trust by Mary Flanagan (Atheneum, $17.95; 292 pages)

Giving a novel a title as simple and direct as “Trust” places a double burden upon the writer. By the use of that single word, Mary Flanagan not only demands to be taken seriously, but obliges herself to confront the issue head on.

She has taken her epigraph from Stendhal’s unfinished novel “Lucien Leuwen,” using the term interchangeably with “faith.” “ ‘One of us simply has to have faith in the other.’ ‘Very well; I will answer you with all the frankness you have just been representing as a duty: why should it be my lot to have faith?’ ‘Because the nature of things will have it so.’ ”

One of the leading characters, the artist Jason Englefield, works throughout the book on the painting that will be his masterwork, “The Three Virtues,” an abstraction harking back to 1 Corinthians, “And now abideth faith, hope and charity.” These concepts are crucial to the story, motivating every human connection and providing the book with its structure, plot, conflict and ultimate resolution.

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Englefield is a self-taught painter, so impatient with the dealers, critics and assorted sycophants of the art Establishment that he relishes the poverty and obscurity resulting from his intransigent attitude. His trust is in himself alone. More frequently encountered in fiction than in life, the uncompromising artist is easy to love but hard to live with, and Jason is no exception.

When the book opens, his long-term relationship with Eleanor Linnane, a vivacious but tormented American heiress, has just ended. After seven years of self-sacrifice in the service of Jason and his enchanting small daughter, Clover, Eleanor has fled his tantrums and ingratitude. We meet her as she is calling upon her London solicitor, Charles Bevan, to draw up a “trust” guaranteeing that her money will go to the child on her 18th birthday. Though Clover is the exquisite result of Jason’s short affair with the wife of an art-collecting dentist, Eleanor has loved her as her own.

Realizing that both her mental and physical health are precarious, Eleanor is determined to provide secretly for the girl’s future, an act requiring her to place absolute trust in Bevan. She’s chosen wisely, because Charles is also obsessed with the idea of trust in all its moral, legal and metaphysical variations, writing lengthy personal essays on the subject. “With everything and everyone so slippery, what can we be sure of? We can only trust. Ideas are no help. They are fashion too. . . . Conceptions and preconceptions are no use. We must take it all pretty much on faith or get out entirely.”

Victim of Principles

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Though Bevan has obviously given profound thought to the matter, his own trust in people and ideas turns out to have been misplaced and he becomes the victim of his high principles, abandoned by those he has helped, discovering too late that the world no longer runs on “moderation, tolerance, harmony, order, fidelity and honor.”

Though Charles is in love with the vibrant Eleanor, he’s far too honorable a man to betray either his dreary wife or his erstwhile friend Jason. Constrained and inhibited by his adamantine morality, he becomes the conscience of the book, his virtue rewarded only in the last few pages.

Charles Bevan’s diametrical opposite is the unscrupulous Felix Koning, an art dealer who not only buys and sells works of dubious provenance, but whose own background is equally clouded. As Jason Englefield suffers for his aesthetic ideals and Charles Bevan pays heavily for his lofty convictions, Felix Koning flourishes by exploiting and seducing them all. Felix is seen only in reflection; a powerful but shadowy presence ruthlessly manipulating Jason, Charles, Eleanor, and ultimately Clover.

Trust as a Pyramid

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A contemporary morality play, “Trust” manages to make its serious points with grace, irony, and considerable subtlety. The idea of trust is seen as a pyramid, with Jason at its pinnacle, isolated by his inability to accept the need to believe in the good faith of anyone else. Eleanor, who accepts Jason’s genius and Felix’s professions of love, is betrayed by both men, while Charles, who has lived his entire life according to the golden rule, is undone by his own integrity.

The character of Clover Englefield, followed from willful babyhood through spirited adolescence to precocious maturity, not only provides an essential continuity, but a natural buoyancy to a theme that might otherwise sink under its own weight. Flanagan moves easily in the hermetic art worlds of London and New York, enlivening the narrative with deft caricatures of its familiar types. We’ve met variations of tormented artists, Mephistophelean charmers, unscrupulous dealers, self-destructive women and morally inflexible philosophers in other novels, but only “Trust” has Clover to make all that edification beguiling.


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