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Chasing Their Tales : THE LONGINGS OF WOMEN, <i> By Marge Piercy (Fawcett: $22; 455 pp.)</i>

<i> Pauli Carnes is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer</i>

In “The Longings of Women,” Marge Piercy’s latest novel, we meet three women, each unhappy in her own way.

Leila is a college professor in her mid-40s. As the book begins, her husband is out of town directing a play and, as is his wont, shacking up with one of the young actresses in the company, an arrangement of convenience that Leila has condoned throughout their 24 years of married life. Within the first few pages Leila’s best friend dies of breast cancer and with the demise of this, her bulwark, Leila’s life begins to fall apart.

Mary is Leila’s cleaning woman, once a middle-class housewife. When her husband left her for another woman she began a slide that has left her homeless, though she hides that fact from her clients and her two adult children.

Becky is an ambitious young woman from the wrong side of the tracks who is clawing her way up the social strata. Her climb is interrupted by the murder of her husband, for which she is arrested.

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Their lives intersect when Leslie agrees to write a book about Becky’s case.

None of the three seems able to discern the difference between appearance and essence. Leila thinks because her husband always comes back that she has a viable marriage. Mary thinks because she knew how her husband liked his eggs cooked, and a thousand other details of his preferences, that she deserved better than to be dumped. Becky confuses having good furniture with having a good life.

Not one of these three asks herself one question about what part she might have played, what decisions she was responsible for, in creating her unhappy situation.

Leila’s professional field of expertise is imprisoned and abused women, no doubt because she identifies with their plight, imprisoned by her neediness in an abusive relationship. No one in her life has apparently suggested therapy for her obvious problems. Whether it be flying to the aid of a sister who doesn’t need or welcome her help, just because their mother asked her to; or having dinner with her estranged husband and his girlfriend because her son asked her to; or never asking the lunk to sleep alone when he’s on the road, this woman has no center. Worse, she has “spousified” her college-age son, discussing marital difficulties that no child should be burdened with--although emotionally isolated people do this to their children all the time; one hopes that someone will refer him for therapy when he reaches midlife. He will no doubt need it.

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Both Leila and Mary are haunted by the threat to their marriages of younger, thinner women; and indeed, both are deserted for younger, thinner women. This struck me as somewhat quaint. Almost without exception the marital bust-ups I know of over the past several years have been women leaving men.

Mary rehearses her woes, as, evidently, she once kept house--obsessively. Her daughter has little time for her, busy with husband and children; my impression was that the author wants us to find the daughter heartlessly cold toward her other, but given Mary’s obsessive-compulsive nature, the younger woman may need that much breathing room--may have needed it all her life. Mary’s son has moved halfway around the world from his mother. Hmmm.

And oh, the men in this book, what a sorry lot: murderous; alcoholic; self-indulgent; irresponsible; immature; emotionally stunted; shiftless; abusive; adulterous; uncaring. They’re seducers, users, betrayers, rapists, blackmailers--a miserable bunch of subhuman beings. They desert pregnant women and they don’t pay child support. One young fellow who seems to be a nice enough guy is running drugs.

Leila’s mother is in a lesbian relationship and declares it “the best marriage I ever had.” Leila’s husband reminds her repeatedly that she “doesn’t like men.” But in this book, what’s to like? In more than one instance, women mate with women not out of biological predisposition, but out of disgust and disappointment with men; i.e., as second choice.

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The overall tone that suffuses this book is female self-pity, or perhaps it is better termed author pity. From academic circles to the women’s jail, most everything these gals have suffered has been because of some darn man. In the main this book takes place inside the head of one or the other of these women; their external lives are sketched in only lightly. Yet not one of these women acknowledges any responsibility for what her life has become. They were just doing the best they could, poor innocent victims that they are.

Piercy leaves us with some ostensibly happy endings, but her characters have neither questioned nor outgrown their basic desperate neediness. Manipulators still believe they must wait and watch and play into the fantasies of other people to assure their own acceptance and survival.

Similarly, the answer to the problem of depending on a man’s affectionate attention in order to feel good about her body is not for a woman to do those things that contribute to feeling good from the inside out: exercise, eat well, or just count her blessings for a strong, healthy body.

No, the answer is a new, improved lover, a lover ex machina , slightly rumpled--Peter Coyote in the movie version--himself wounded in love so he’s a really sensitive, understanding kind of guy. The most sanguine heterosexual relationship in this book looks to the future with the fervent declaration: “We can just grub along and try to love each other.”

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But the one great shortcut to a happy ending, Piercy suggests, is to live without men. Get rid of your man and you get rid of your problems.

At the end of the book each woman is still looking for affirmation from an outside source; each looking, ironically, outside herself to find self-acceptance. None of these characters seems to have a “longing” to feel secure to reach out to life, to others, with a sense that in herself she has value, is worth knowing, is inherently lovable; to live buoyed with the confidence that she has a rightful place in the world, and that her gifts will make a place for her.

Merrily we grub along.


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