BOOKS LIFE SENTENCES

Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey scores again.

AT FIRST I was a little worried about Life Sentences. I feared that Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, a close friend since our Dallas childhood, had created such a tough act to follow in her radiant, best-selling first novel, A Woman of Independent Means, that she would never equal this triumph again. I need not have worried. She has more than met her own high standards.

Those who loved A Woman of Independent Means may be surprised by Life Sentences. This is a searingly contemporary novel, quite unlike the portrait that Betsy Hailey shaped of her Dallas grandmother, Bess Jones, in A Woman of Independent Means. Bess Steed Garner, as the character was called, was a traditional woman of Honey Grove, Texas. She married her childhood sweetheart and moved to Dallas. Her husband built an important life insurance company, and Bess shone at the Shakespeare Club, where she revealed that her favorite literary character was Lady Macbeth. A traditional woman, Bess, but not entirely.

When her husband died and the insurance company almost went broke paying off a deluge of claims, Bess built the business back up again and went into real-estate investing as well, all the while caring for her children. She married a second time to give them a father. Bess understood money and she understood love. That’s what endeared her to thousands of readers. She managed to be modern and still fulfill her commitments as a woman.

Betsy Hailey needed to deal with Bess and that structured society in her first book. Only then could she turn to the complicated world of contemporary women. But where Bess Steed Garner endured grandly, there are serious questions about Lindsay Hawkins of Life Sentences.

Lindsay Hawkins looks like a modern woman of independent means. She lives alone in a New York apartment, edits a prestigious magazine and sees a nice man on the weekends. She’s the envy of old college friends who settled for kids and houses and husbands. Few of them realize that Lindsay is living a life sentence of desperate dependence on an old commitment.

Her work at the magazine is satisfying. That’s clear. Her series, “Give and Take,” has scored highly with readers. It has also given Betsy Hailey a chance to tell us, in disguise, something about her own marriage to playwright Oliver Hailey. Betsy helped him get started in theater and television writing in the early years; then he helped her break into TV, working with him on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, with salary and credits of her own. He’s a tough editor of her novels, just as she’s a stern critic of his plays. They nurture each other’s talent. It’s give and take, and it’s worked for Betsy and Oliver Hailey.

That philosophy doesn’t work at all for Lindsay because there’s no one there for her on the other end of the seesaw. Almost no one, though she has the old commitment that claims her emotional energy and gives her a strange, silent benediction in return. This relationship is the mystery of the book. While not giving away any of the writer’s carefully controlled secrets, I can say that this bizarre attachment is improbable, but psychologically true. It ties Lindsay to the past and prevents (protects?) her from putting together a new life. Until an equally bizarre pregnancy intervenes.

Lindsay wants the child, and she painfully accepts a new life sentence, putting her in conflict with the old commitment. She’s forced to make a choice.

Lindsay is carrying the child of a man to whom she has a tenuous connection, if that. She is not married to him and never will be. Her weekend friend wants to take care of her, but she resists his possessive love. She takes enormous pleasure in knowing that this child will be hers alone. And she hopes for a daughter.

Lindsay is 42. The pregnancy is difficult. She needs constant care. It comes unexpectedly from an old college friend who had irritated Lindsay with excessive admiration years before and has continued to bore her ever since with the unwelcome arrival of each college newsletter, edited by the friend, chronicling the cramped lives and constrained choices of the class of ’62. There’s another old friend whom Lindsay needs, who means much more, but she’s remote now.

In many ways, this is a book about friendship among women. It’s not that the men are unsympathetic: There are kind, caring doctors, a wonderful father and humane husbands and lovers in Life Sentences. But the internal action centers on three women. Like Chekhov’s Three Sisters or Oliver Hailey’s three friends in his play Father’s Day, Lindsay, Cissy and Meg are this book’s core of reality. All else conspires to set up the central ideas: the degree of choice we really have, and what can be done with it. The strain between men and women struggling to understand each other. The retreat from love and its ultimate importance. The need to be alone and the need not to be alone. The consuming drive of women to bear children. Families-our own and the ones we put together from the people at hand.

Betsy Hailey is particularly sensitive on this last point. During an interview, she explained: “Everyone longs for a sense of family – some structure that will provide a continuing connection with other people.

But the nuclear family, with its narrowly defined relationships, is not the answer. People have got to open their doors, to acknowledge their responsibility for those whose only claim may be their need. We are beginning to expand our concept of the extended family to include not just grandparents and cousins but friends who live alone or single parents. There are all kinds of ways to make a family – to create a sense of mutual caring among individuals not connected by blood or marriage or shared children.”

Lindsay is an only child. Though she remains close to her parents (some of Betsy’s best writing describes Lindsay’s mother and father and her feelings for them), she needs an extended family of brothers and sisters. Especially sisters. She finds them in her friends, who have to sacrifice time with their own families to help form a new family for Lindsay and her unborn child.

Life Sentences is light-years away from A Woman of Independent Means. Where Bess Steed Garner had continuity, Lindsay has violent disruption. Where Bess had children with relative ease (though their illnesses and the death of one son caused her pain and grief). Lindsay pays a high price for her daughter – just as her mother paid dearly for Lindsay. Where Bess seemed sure of herself and secure in her world, Lindsay lives with conviction but without the stabilizing reinforcement of convention. She has no history to guide her, no archetypal attitudes to inform her imagination. Every day is a new invention.

Bess stood in a long tradition of pioneer women who married well and helped their men make good. When disaster struck, she used her own resourcefulness to put the pieces together again. She understood compromise and lived with it, though she never liked it. She pushed out the boundaries of her life, extending them to Europe, the arts and ideas. She loved to spend money and through extravagance made up to herself for the hurt of many losses.

Lindsay has been a successful editor and will probably return to the magazine after she recovers from the crisis of birth. For the moment, however, she’s burrowing in, gathering old friends about her, searching for a way to sustain the new life inside her. Lindsay embodies the accumulated character and disorientation of the women who raced to meet the opportunities of the Seventies. She’s austere, adaptable, needful, responsive and responsible. But we wish for her, and for ourselves, a little of Bess Garner’s wisdom and joy. Perhaps that will come.

Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey has taken onsome large themes in Life Sentences. Herbook is true to the times, and it reads extremely well.

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