Mary Kay Zuravleff’s first novel, The Frequency of Souls, exhibits her command of language and talent for characterization. The plot is linear, uncomplicated, and leavened with humor. Her work was supported by the D.C. Commission on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the James Jones Society, and the Ragdale Foundation.
The novel’s protagonist is George Mahoney, through whose mind and vision a third-person narrator relates the story. A refrigerator engineer at Coldpoint for fourteen years, George claims his career matches his total faith in the material world and logic. He is the American suburban male prototype: handsome, tall, happily married and still sexually attracted to Judy, his wife of sixteen years. He has a twelve-year-old son, Harris, and a six- year-old daughter, Sheridan, and with this family he lives in an upper-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. That his life is a good one goes unquestioned until his office mate of fourteen years, the Veteran, retires and is replaced by Niagara Spense. Soon it becomes clear first to the reader and eventually to George that he is stalled in neutral, in a passive, unquestioning mindset and situation. Symbolically, his only refrigerator redesign has been the automatic ice-maker invention.
George and his wife Judy believe they know each other well. Judy, a successful Washington, D.C., real estate agent, has become the planner of their lives—somewhat obsessively, so George thinks. Nevertheless, he enjoys his freedom from this responsibility, which he perceives as a healthy contentment. The only friction in their family comes from George and Judy’s differing opinions about their son Harris’ need to lose weight and how to plot the life of this apparent genius.
The novel covers seven days in which George, willy-nilly, awakens from his passive stupor. The story begins when he does the unthinkable: invites his new and much younger office mate, Niagara Spense, for lunch, not in the Coldpoint cafeteria but in a nearby restaurant.
Newly out of Caltech graduate school, Niagara is as bizarre as George Mahoney is typical. She is six feet, two inches tall, has an extra large frame, and wears garish homemade dresses, thick glasses and thicker makeup, and a hearing aid. Although George’s fellow employees make jokes about Niagara, her individuality attracts rather than repels George. Later in the novel, she also attracts a younger man, a musicology professor who is a son of the Veteran.
Niagara’s characterization defies or deconstructs the woman type so prevalent in American literature and popular culture. She is not a shrew; she is not a seductress. Large, homely, and gentle, she is not a reincarnated Dame Van Winkle or Hemingway bitch-goddess. She bites her nails and she is very intelligent, but she is not in any way self-conscious or affected. She is direct, polite in responses when she can hear questions, that is, when her hearing aid is working. She is honest and humorous. She is quite human. When George at the novel’s end, himself realigned with his wife, family, and past, asks Niagara how she can reconcile her attempts to communicate with a mistreated dead scientist and her plans to marry a young, hippylike musicologist, she says, “Well, I can’t kiss a dead man, can I?”
There is a magic in the way Zuravleff creates and develops these two unlikely friends, just as there is magic in the way she finds all her thematic and symbolic material in the world of refrigerator engineering and electricity.
Niagara’s role as a catalyst in George’s life begins when she asks why he has chosen engineering as a life’s vocation. Anchored as he is in the physical, George resists answering even such a slightly probing question, even as he follows his attraction to Niagara. A few passionate kisses and George decides he will leave his wife and family for Niagara, forever. Yet this sudden fall from almost twenty years of fidelity to his loved and loving wife will not happen, because the physical is not the real substance of Niagara’s force. The real electricity of Niagara is metaphysical. Powered by this force, George reshapes the principles of his life.
This level of connection is moved forward when, having given some superficial responses to Niagara’s questions about his refrigeration vocation, George demands that she explain her decision to work on refrigeration. Niagara immediately answers: She needs the job to pay for her real life goal, an experiment in electricity. As a graduate at Caltech and now late at night in her rickety, hidden trailer-lab, she listens in on the frequencies of old cabinet radios, believing that she will some night connect with the wavelength on which the dead speak, that is,...
(The entire section is 1946 words.)