The image of Rhine maidens originates in Wagnerian opera. Maidens on the Rhine sing of the power of love. Men come along, scorn love, and steal the maidens’ treasure. And as men had power over the Rhine maidens, so do they over the women in Carolyn See’s new novel.
Rhine Maidens is an unconventional story about women who have lived their lives through their men. It explores how two women, mother and daughter, respond to the loss of love in their lives. At once hilarious and despairing, Rhine Maidens also captures the tacky, seedy, and glamorous modern-day Los Angeles and offers many amusing observations about life in general through the two main characters.
Grace Jackson, once a beautiful ambitious girl, is a demanding old woman in the present frame of the novel. Her first husband left her for a younger woman, a male suitor who bored her committed suicide because of her, and a second husband, an unfortunate drunk, died after a brief, unhappy marriage with her. Grace spends her time lamenting her lost youth and all the disappointments in her life, waiting for something else to go wrong. She misses the glamour of her youth. To Grace, the good life was perfect little black sandals, a paycheck for $27.50, and carrying the right newspaper while shopping downtown. Presently, all she knows how to do is laugh at people.
Grace’s daughter, Garnet, is a spectacularly unremarkable Brentwood matron who is living the American dream. Thirty-nine years old, she has a successful television-producer husband, a tastefully furnished home, and two uninteresting children. She lives the rich full life of the West Los Angeles housewife: she shops, she goes to lunch in restaurants, she plays bridge, she takes extension courses at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in an attempt to learn “what life is all about.” She is also the type of woman who takes the labels off two hundred cans for her son’s school drive, forgetting that she will not know what is in them. She belongs to sufficiently vague and universal causes such as the World Hunger Project and Mothers for Peace, and she does not buy silk because the Cambodians suffer so much.
Garnet sees all of West Los Angeles filled with women who have beautiful homes, a husband, kids, and an opportunity to go back to school. They have that and nothing more—but they are safe. That was Garnet’s reason for getting married, and it was the safest thing she could do. With all she possesses though, Garnet senses that there is something to life that she is missing. She feels locked inside and all of life is “out there.” One of her observations is that “they don’t teach Happiness I and II at UCLA—not even through Extension.”
Carolyn See, an astute observer of the Southern California scene, avoids the obvious clichés and draws a portrait of middle-class suburbia that is chillingly familiar. The situations in which she sets her characters are peculiar to Los Angeles, but the comedy and pathos that are inherent in them speak to everyone.
The plot centers around a visit Grace pays to Garnet and her family. The perennial mother-daughter conflict is explored as Grace and Garnet irritate each other throughout the novel. Grace takes out her frustrations on Garnet and manages to criticize everything Garnet does or likes. Garnet resents her mother’s condemnation of her middle-class life but nevertheless tries very hard to please her mother. The story is narrated alternately by Grace and then Garnet as they comment on the same events with wildly differing viewpoints.
Garnet’s first attempt to draw Grace into her social circle begins with an invitation to attend her ladies’ book discussion club. Grace notices that all the women have “crazy little eyes” and that they spend most of their time talking about nothing. Garnet’s attempt to treat her mother to a pleasant luncheon turns into a disaster as Grace makes a scene in the restaurant. While they are in the restaurant, Grace notices that Garnet’s husband is also there, but with another woman. Of course, Grace is not surprised to discover the fact. She had decided long before that all men are louts and infidelity is everywhere. What she does not understand, however, is why Garnet has not seen the signs of a soon-to-be marriage on the rocks. “She always was a little slow on the uptake,” muses Grace.
In a scene that captures all the silliness and sadness of the EST-like motivational seminars, Garnet persuades Grace to attend a money awareness weekend with her. The group leaders dress like dollar bills and to Grace’s dismay, they also sing and dance.
The situations in which Garnet and Grace find themselves are somewhat absurd, as are the characters themselves at times, but they are believable and readers find themselves caring about what happens to these ladies, although it is evident that a large part of their dissatisfaction is of their own making. All of the characters in Rhine Maidens, if they do not openly complain, at least sense that there is something missing from their lives. They all have different ways of responding to this sense of loss. Grace has given up any further search for happiness, convinced that it was the men in her life who gave it all to her and then took it all away. Garnet feels that life is just beyond her reach and that “everyone loses everything” anyway. Grace’s first husband thought maybe changing wives would have improved his life’s situation; Grace’s second husband tried to find happiness through alcohol; and Garnet’s husband looks for it in the attentions of another woman.
The problems set up in the novel are resolved to varying degrees at its conclusion. Yet the conclusion is too pat for what has already been seen of Grace. Unlike Garnet, no substantial changes are seen in Grace, and the reader is left wondering if Grace will ever let go of her anger and disappointments and get on with life.
See’s snappy and clever writing style makes Rhine Maidens a delight to read. While she entertains, she provides many wise insights into people’s attitudes about themselves. Most important, she teaches that safety is not to be won easily.
Best Sellers. XLI, October, 1981, p. 250.
Kirkus Reviews. XLIX, July 15, 1981, p. 899.
Library Journal. CVI, October 15, 1981, p. 2050.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, October 18, 1981, p. 15.
Newsweek. XCVIII, October 5, 1981, p. 81.
Publishers Weekly. CCXX, August 7, 1981, p. 66.