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Labors of Love

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

In a New York Times Book Review column in 1967, R. V. Cassill wrote that “Of all the arts, fiction is the one which most broadly connects the homely, private, errant, ridiculous and immature phases of our lives with the ripened abstractions of philosophy.” In his most recent novel, Labors of Love, Cassill makes just such a “broad connection,” but the reader may not be convinced that the “homely, private, errant, ridiculous and immature phases” of Cassill’s protagonist are convincingly connected with the “ripened abstractions of philosophy.”

At the end of Labors of Love, Troy Slater has what one must judge as an epiphany. Cassill writes,... in the change that had come over him, past and present tense had no useful distinction. Now he loved everyone he had ever loved, back to his eighth grade crush on one Pamela Stone. But love had ceased to be an appetite. He wanted to possess nothing that would stand in the way of his duty.

Unfortunately, Cassill has not made very clear what Slater’s duty is, and it remains unclear whether Slater has achieved selflessness or is merely rationalizing his old habit of doing what he wants to do.

A page earlier, Cassill writes that Slater could not save his children “by love or caution.” To save the children, himself, or his wife, he must do “something more radical.” Then, “To be faithful to his little family, he had first to be faithful to the decision that would dissolve it.” Again, the reader looks for necessary—and logical—connections. What are the forces at work which justify this paradox? Has Cassill demonstrated this necessity, or merely asserted it?

The question is not whether Cassill, or his fictional character, believes what Cassill writes, but whether the novel embodies these meanings. Gratuitous realizations, no matter how high-minded, can neither delight nor instruct. An epiphany must contain realization inherent in the stuff of the fictional experience.

The fault with Labors of Love is not with the writer’s craft but with his grasp. What this fine writer has achieved in twenty chapters of good, often delightful, writing is essentially trivial, and no amount of philosophic “realization” can save the book from that triviality. The plot involves Troy Slater’s rekindled desire, or need, to write. Ostensibly, the violent death of a beautiful, mysterious woman he scarcely knows has something to do with his return to the typewriter. His relationships with two women—his wife and his mistress—also appear to be catalysts, but the reader may have trouble in discerning anything like necessary connections between these several story threads.

The opening page of the novel establishes Slater’s paralysis. Slater’s daughter Ursula accuses him of not reading. He is on the deck of his Truro summer home “with his eyes fixed on the great blue emptiness of the Cape Cod sky.” His wife, Nancy, is off at Harvard taking a business course, and, although Troy Slater regularly hides behind the excuse of work, he is reading not manuscripts but “the signs of the times.” He is, Cassill tells the reader, looking “for an exception in the small print,” and Slater’s imagination has provided an angel in the sky signaling appropriate warnings. Even here, however, Cassill goes further than the situation warrants. Slater thinks of writing his story and can think only of “a fictional ending with decisive violence ... as a resolution to the grim absurdity about to stifle him.”

The grim absurdity turns out to be no more real than the angel in the sky. Troy’s mistress, a younger woman named Margaret Gill, has indicated her intention to abandon their love nest in Cincinnati and return to New York “to be near you until you have settled with Nancy.” Margaret’s decision threatens to disrupt Troy’s idyllic situation, but he is in no danger from “the grim absurdity” Cassill speaks of. Nothing is “about to stifle him.” Cassill’s first chapter engages the reader’s...

(The entire section is 1,599 words.)