June 29, 1997
Old-fashioned storytelling is Howard Fast's specialty these days. "An Independent Woman" does not deviate from the pattern of likable characters, linear narrative, and liberal idealism that he has established over a lifetime of more than 50 novels, plays and screenplays.
Perhaps you'll join me in saying, thank goodness for that!
Modern literary irony and its accompanying cynicism are all but non-existent in Fast's Lavette Saga, which began with "The Immigrants," written in 1979, and presumably finished four books later, in 1985.
With "The Immigrant's Daughter," Fast thought he was through with Barbara Lavette, rags-to-riches Dan Lavette's daughter, whose career in journalism led her into dicey situations with German Nazis, Salvadoran death squads and, worse yet, the House Committee on Un-American Activities. (Most readers will recognize that some of these experiences reflect Fast's own, as reported in his 1990 autobiography, "Being Red: A Memoir.")
But at the age of 80, Fast was impelled to return to the feisty Barbara as a tribute to his wife of 57 years, who had just died.
In her sixth appearance, Barbara Lavette remains forceful and individualistic, although somewhat less than objective in her contempt for stereotyped "religious people." However, surprising even herself, she marries, at 68, an elderly Unitarian minister. They honeymoon in Israel, where they survive a terrorist bomb explosion, and she learns to appreciate him.
Except for the chapter on the Holy Land, Barbara's story here is less dependent than earlier books on current events and global movements. (An old book jacket blurb euphorically calls her "a participant in most of the events of her time.") It concentrates on the personal aspects of life's closing years for a gifted, strong-minded woman.
Fast's writing is, by modern standards, rarely exciting, but it is incorrigibly interesting. Free-thinking in politics and social concerns, he is conservative enough in style, and his women are fittingly beautiful, relatively traditional heroines. His enthusiasms in this book, as always well-researched, are winemaking and Jerusalem; religion on the other hand, seems a source of touchy ambivalence.
Same old, same old, some critics will groan, and it is true that "An Independent Woman" falls into the category of standard entertainment. But you and I know how infinitely satisfying it can be to entrust your precious leisure hours to someone who deals in serious drama without delivering you up suddenly into befuddling scenes of creative decapitation, over-inventive sex, or couture cannibalism. If you worry about that kind of thing, you can trust Howard Fast.
And that's a compliment.
Maude McDaniel, who lives in Cumberland, Md., has reviewed books for many
newspapers, including the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post.