Old traditions, and expectations, die hard, or...

Old traditions, and expectations, die hard, or so it seems. In the eight weeks since our daughter was born (so many pink outfits, so little time), we have learned some stark lessons about girls and boys, even though there was a rumored truce in the war between the sexes. Hah. Girls still get clothes and cuddly toys; boys get Fisher-Price Activity Centers and similar paraphernalia, designed to develop the brains they will so clearly need as they forge careers.

So it was with particular interest that I cracked the binding on Erica Jong's latest, Any Woman's Blues (Harper & Row: $18.95; 384 pp.), which promises a look at women in the 1990s--a happy glimpse, according to the blurbs, a light at the end of the sex-, drug-, and alcohol-sodden tunnel. An answer to the question, not of what women want, but of how to get it. Good Housekeeping may tout the new traditionalist (a polite euphemism for moms who can afford to stop working and find happiness at home), but surely Jong would have something smarter to say about the modern woman.

Uh-huh. Jong deftly plays both ends against the middle (which is one of the few sexual positions her heroine doesn't attempt) in this X-rated morality tale. Leila Sand is a wine-guzzling, dope-smoking painter obsessed with a younger man, Darton, whom she calls Dart for all the obviously phallic reasons. He, of course, loves the living daylights out of her and then leaves her lonely. But the author knows that a whole novel about Leila after she straightens up would be, well, dull as dry toast. So she strategically places her heroine's enlightenment at the back of the book, after hundreds of voyeuristic pages that describe all the despicable behaviors she has to leave behind. The key to feminine happiness is still the love of a good man, and the way to get that man is to clean up one's act a bit--having read all the dirty parts first--which sounds like the 1950s as much as the 1990s.

At least Judith Michael's A Ruling Passion (Poseidon Press: $19.95; 574 pp.) is unabashed about its old-style values. Valerie Sterling is your basic directionless socialite when her husband's private plane goes down, killing him and leaving Valerie and three other passengers stranded at an isolated, icy lake. But she gamely sets off in her sable coat, matching sable hat and cashmere scarf and saves everyone's life, only to learn that her dear, departed husband managed to squander her millions before he died. The fur's about all she has left.

Faced with the cruel specter of poverty, Valerie digs deep within herself and finds the drive she has always lacked--which propels her right into the arms of an ex-flame, and right into an investigation of his ex-wife's television ministry. It's an idyllic, if idealized, scenario, based on the delightful double-whammy notion that a good woman always gets a second chance in life and justice ultimately prevails--which certainly will be news to the women out there who are trying to rewrite their personal histories.

First novelist Teresa de Luca does a much better job with a similarly hackneyed story in A Distant Thunder (William Morrow: $19.95; 512 pp.). It's still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die, but this time done with some energy. Dolly Carrasquez, like so many other romantic heroines, suffers from severe myopia where men are concerned. She looks right past British journalist Jack Curtis and runs off to Spain to wed a soldier. Soon widowed, thanks to the Spanish Civil War, she turns to a radical worker--but the reader knows that Jack has not forgotten her in Spain, and eventually the second wrong beau does what a friend of mine calls the mortal-coil shuffle-off, leaving Dolly free to do the right thing. It's a painless way to learn some Spanish Civil War history.

So there it is. What moral can I extract for a baby girl? That love conquers all, a decent, if impractical sentiment that will get her nowhere with her creditors or co-workers? That women are doomed to dumbness until they're well into their 30s? Thanks, but no thanks. This is not the kind of bedtime stories she should hear. Think I'll go out and buy her some boy-toys instead.

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