CELEBRATION is Mary Lee Settle’s first novel since the completion of her acclaimed Beulah Quintet in 1982. That it is a novel ambitious in scope and structure, defiant of literary fashion, will come as no surprise to readers who know and admire her previous work.
Time present is 1969; the place is London, the swinging London of miniskirts and the music of the Beatles. Teresa Cerrutti, an anthropologist, thirty years old and several years a widow, recovering from surgery for uterine cancer, has come to London from the United States to do research in the British Museum--and to start her life again. In Teresa’s way of putting it, she has crossed the river Styx, an experience that binds her to the novel’s other principal characters: Ewen, a Scottish geologist whom she meets in the museum and with whom she falls in love (the feeling is mutual); Ewen’s friend Pius, a six-foot, nine-inch Jesuit from war-torn Sudan; and Noel, whom Teresa idolized as a child, a homosexual British aristocrat.
With this colorful cast of characters, and with settings ranging from the United States (briefly) to London, Scotland, Turkey, Hong Kong, and Africa, Settle claims territory often thought to be the exclusive preserve of popular fiction. Settle herself would probably say that she was following the example of Joseph Conrad, unobtrusively invoked in CELEBRATION as a tutelary spirit.
Intentions alone, however, admirable though they may be, do not make a readable book. Instead of dramatizing the novel’s considerable action, Settle chose to have the characters themselves relate their experiences to some listener or listeners (real or imagined). These stylized and very lengthy set pieces--no one in real life tells his life story in such literary fashion, and no one would listen if he did--might work in another sort of novel, but here they conflict with aspirations to realism, and they are likely to exceed the patience of many readers. Those who persist will find that, despite its flawed conception, CELEBRATION offers further acquaintance with a writer of great integrity and original vision.