Ever since her first book in 1977, Alice Hoffman’s fiction has been praised for its clever blend of the magical and the quotidian, the sensual and the coolly ironic. Set in deceptively humdrum surroundings — Long Island commuter towns, resort communities on Martha’s Vineyard, and the sprawling suburbs of L.A. — her books vibrate with oddly passionate characters, inexplicable events, and mystifying dollops of Jungian symbolism. Seventh Heaven, Hoffman’s eighth novel, is no exception.
On the face of it, an unnamed tract community in the potato fields of Nassau County, N.Y., in 1959 would seem an unlikely site for an outbreak of passion. ”For the longest time,” writes Hoffman in her best deadpan, ”husbands pulled into the wrong driveways after work; children wandered into the wrong houses for cookies and milk; young mothers who took their babies out for walks in their new carriages found themselves wandering past identical houses, on identical streets…” Even the dogs got lost.
Enter Nora Silk in her Volkswagen, with her stack of Elvis records, her clairvoyant nerd of a son, Billy, and her baby, James, but without her mendacious ex-husband, an unsuccessful magician who has run off to Las Vegas to make his fortune. Which makes Nora that most dangerous and alluring ’50s figure — a divorcée. ”That’s your mother?” 17-year-old Ace McCarthy asks Billy. ”She…doesn’t look like somebody’s mother.”
Young Billy’s not quite sure what Ace means. But there’s no mistaking how the other boys’ mothers feel. ”The stray pieces of their thoughts Billy picked up made him blush: If she didn’t know enough to wash her baby’s face, she shouldn’t have a baby. If she couldn’t fix decent meals for her children, she shouldn’t have been a mother in the first place.” When Nora visits the hardware store in her black toreador pants, the men stop talking. ”Get a load of that,” ventures one. ”I’ll bet she’s dying for it,” another wistfully remarks. Their wives certainly aren’t.
But then, despite the raised eyebrows of every dutiful hubby and disapproving matron in town, death and sorrow, hope and desire break out all over. Signs and symbols begin to appear: Crows nest in threes, ghosts haunt neatly trimmed front lawns, and forbidden passions pull at the sleeping and waking minds of even the most domesticated citizens. One look into Nora Silk’s dark eyes and her neighbor, Detective Joe Hennessy of the Nassau County P.D., can’t understand how his wife can drone away next to him in the dark while his imagination runs riot. ”How could she not smell the perfume Nora was wearing? How could she not hear the bedsprings creak?”
As 1959 turns into 1960, an unsuspecting suburban world is turned inside out. Donna Durgin leaves her husband. Detective Hennessy begins spending his spare time at the courthouse watching divorce actions. Danny Shapiro discovers marijuana during a summer job at a research lab. Ace McCarthy starts spending his nights with Nora and his afternoons teaching Billy to play baseball. ”Things began to happen for no reason at all. Things no one had imagined or even expected and certainly had never wanted….On Friday nights it was almost impossible to get a baby-sitter because most of the teenage girls had decided they had better things to do. They had given up wearing panty girdles and stockings and a few of the wilder ones had stopped wearing underwear ” The chic cult of Jacqueline Kennedy obsesses even Detective Hennessy’s inert wife.
The trouble with all this portentousness is that the author can’t seem to decide how seriously she wants readers to take her story. Oblivious to the outside world, Hoffman’s characters have no specific gravity; it’s almost as if she learned most of what she knows about the period by watching reruns of Father Knows Best. Chock-full of knowing references to brand names and pop- cultural references of the period — Tupperware parties, Yoo-Hoo soda , Elvis Presley hits, and The Ed Sullivan Show — the book is suspended somewhere between realism and satire. Under the circumstances, the supernatural stuff seems more an exercise in graduate school cleverness than evidence of a uniquely compelling sensibility. B