It is not the character that stands out in this essentially one-character novel about an impulsive, clever and put-upon young woman. Suzy, an American living in England and embarking upon an assortment of ill-fated experiments to discover life, sex and her brain, is a familiar sort of klutz, though a classy and hand-dipped one.
It is not the story, and it is not the discoveries. They are first-novel discoveries. They are good ones and they have essentially been discovered before, though not, of course, on the typewriter of Lucy Ellmann. It is important for first-novel writers to have their characters make such discoveries. Then they can go on to write second novels, and in the case of Ellmann, this is likely to be an excellent idea.
Because there is something about "Sweet Desserts" that does stand out. It is the raving turn of a sentence here and there; a sentence that won't lie down as you are led through it, but humps up, twines around your ankle, fixes you with a round eye, and whispers an invitation to meet somewhere later.
Suzy and Fran, her older sister and perpetual rival, live in an Illinois college town until their early teens. After their mother dies of a stroke, their father, an art historian, gets an appointment at Oxford, and they move to England. The novel ranges from the present--the sisters are in their 30s, Suzy has a daughter and has left her husband, their father is dying--back to their childhood, and the times between.
In the early pages, Fran, as baby and child, is the star; Suzy darts in and out of her shadow. From the start, Ellmann's sentences wriggle like grass-snakes. Here is a glimpse of Fran, at 2, trying in vain to get the attention of her mother, who is pregnant and dozing on the porch.
"The little girl sits down again encircled by nonplused toys, and crosses her legs. Minutes pass and a few bugs."
To claim attention, she wanders the neighborhood sneaking other kids' toys; among them, 36 pairs of dolls' shoes. Her mother has to lock her in her room at nap time. "The two wept in their separate enclaves," Ellmann writes, "absorbing the fact that Franny had become an enemy."
After Suzy's birth, Fran takes to bed-wetting, and her father takes up the role of comforter. "Franny sat on his lap and he confided in this small, wet, troubled person." Later, Fran will conscript Suzy in child games that conclusively demonstrate her own superiority.
After these few delicate and pointed pages, the book shifts to Suzy in her married life in London. Fran, so appealing and spiky, has become all spike; a disagreeable, bossy adult, one more among the personages and furnishings that agitate Suzy's tale of universal put-down. We miss Fran; perhaps the book would be stronger if it had stayed with her. Perhaps that will be the second book.
Still, Suzy is appealing, particularly in her marriage trap. She goes on food binges, with special emphasis on bread. In her more active rages at her sister, who eats Suzy's sundaes as well as her own when they go out together, she nourishes images of "cutting Franny up into thick slices that look like white bread." To bolster her sexual self-esteem, she buys specialized pornographic magazines that feature fat women.
The marriage to Jeremy, a discarded lover of Fran's, provides a whole cluster of wriggling sentences. He is English, idle, fussy, self-absorbed and a leech. Occasionally he condescends to make love, retiring immediately afterwards with an individual portion of yogurt. Suzy is grateful but "envies the yogurt."
When she finds herself pregnant, they get married and go on a one-night honeymoon to a dreary rural inn. "We consummated the business of the day. I went to sleep. Jeremy lay awake contemplating minor faux pas he'd committed." The next day, they take a walk in the park at Blenheim "past a dead body that wasn't discovered until a few days later." Ellmann, who tells us on the jacket flap that she was taken to England at 13 "against her will" and still lives there, makes English awfulness a thing of beauty.
Lily, her baby, gives Suzy her first dose of self-confidence as well as the gumption to leave Jeremy. She then embarks on a series of sexual adventures and a tentative career--following in her father's and Fran's footsteps--as an art writer.
The adventures are mostly misadventures; they reinforce Suzy's klutziness but they also drag the book down. They include two passionate encounters on a train, one with a conductor, another with a policeman; and a longer affair with a painter in New York who is beautiful, blond and pudgy. There is another affair with a married man whom she meets by dialing a wrong number.
The sex, if not the aftermaths, is unfailingly protracted and marvelous ("We fit together like two wandering continents"). Even if Suzy's adventures are told with humor and irony, they remain a woman's stud-fantasies, and they drain the book as well as Suzy. They serve to point up her comic disarray, but that is just the trouble. Ellmann has turned her live character into a hapless doll, and her writing turns to comic decoration.
It is often appealing decoration but the writing lacks the sting it had earlier. Snippets of magazine household hints and advice columns are interjected ever so often. It gives a nice sense of a world full of meaningless instructions, but it wears out. So do the flat and irritating jokes inserted ever so often. Telling bad jokes is more hapless decor; it says: You can look at me--I'm no threat.
By the time a harder note is introduced with the terminal illness of Suzy's and Fran's father, this too seems like a decoration. "Sweet Desserts" doesn't fizzle, exactly, but it loses its way. In part, though, this is a tribute to the burning and delicate anarchy with which it started; we want it sustained and it isn't.