Jane (Vance) Rule Christopher Salvesen - Essay

Christopher Salvesen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Reno, Nevada is the setting for a first novel which is a convincing example of its kind: The Desert of the Heart develops a moral situation until a decision is made which the reader feels has been fairly and interestingly worked for. Evelyn Hall, university teacher, unsuccessfully married for 16 years, has come for her divorce. She falls in love with a young girl who works in a casino. Gradually she realises her marriage has been a 'long detour' from her original nature. The conflict between what she knows to be natural and what she believes to be right is worked out on the equivocal stages of the Nevada desert and the gambling-club…. The setting is brilliantly used throughout: one of the central episodes, on a barren lake-shore bone-white with fossil snail-shells, recalls Passage to India. The pessimistic message of the caves ('Everything exists, nothing has value') seems here to be reversed; 'everything has value'—even sterility. But this, from the girl Ann, who lives for the moment, who identifies with the desert, comes perhaps to much the same. And her morality poses a question to Evelyn's more conventional liberal one. The sterile, beautiful landscape (and the pure, useless activity of gambling), can these really accommodate, let alone justify, their love? This is an intelligent novel, not afraid of ideas and not committed to them over-diagrammatically: there are some telling incidental scenes—the divorce hearing, a farcical wedding—and the two women talk with that unaffected graveness, peculiarly American, which can incorporate literary allusion and parlour-game psychology without strain.

Christopher Salvesen, "In the West Riding," in New Statesman (© 1964 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LXVII, No. 1718, February 14, 1964, p. 260.∗