Sudden Rain, by Maritta Wolff. Scribner, New York, 2005. 435pp., $26.00.
Maritta Wolff wrote her first novel, Whistle Stop, in an undergraduate English class at the University of Michigan. It was published to immense critical acclaim in 1941 when she was twenty-two years old, and five years later was made into a film featuring Ava Gardner in her first starring role. Wolff√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢s seventh and last novel was completed in 1972 and stashed away in manuscript because the author refused to promote the book and, further, refused to approach another publisher. After her death three years ago, Ms. Wolff√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢s estate discovered and released the book — Sudden Rain √¢‚Ç¨‚Äú- for the great benefit of all of us 21st century fiction lovers in desperate search of an engrossing read, something harder and harder to find in this postmodern world where narrative is becoming a dirty word.
A prevailing theory holds that the √¢‚Ç¨Àú60’s did not completely end until about 1974. Sudden Rain is a fascinating reinforcement of that hypothesis. Set amidst the lush landscapes, sprawling ranch houses, glittering swimming pools, smoke-filled bars, and, yes, steamy hotel rooms of L.A., the novel is a round-robin saga of the tribulations of four couples in different stages of alienation. Tom and Nedith, suffering through the dissolution of their son’s marriage, are themselves pretending not to be estranged. Meanwhile, their neighbor, Cynny, would like to believe that all is well with her husband, Jim. And Cynny√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢s best friend, Nancy, wonders where things are heading with Dave.
In an early interview, Maritta Wolff said that her characters “have a habit of getting their own ideas…They run away and do as they please.” Aside from being strategically ingenuous, this is easier said than done. The author√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢s pre-eminent accomplishment is that she causes us to care about her characters, most especially the devoted wives, buffeted by arguing teenagers, ignored by straying husbands, bored by days of errands, and imprisoned by interior decor. Every woman in the book is in an endless battle to preserve her self-respect. As we bear witness to these painful struggles, another of Maritta Wolff√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢s gifts rises to the surface.
This is her uncanny ear for marital dialogue, the ways in which husbands and wives talk to and sometimes “at” each other, the ways in which words can act as a screen to deflect entree into the deeper self. When Tom talks in hurried passing to Nedith, all he wants to do is put her off. But when he packs his bag and leaves on the pretext of a business trip and joins his lover, Hallie, all he wants to do is engage with her and share the vicissitudes of his life.
With its couplings and uncouplings, clandestine trysts elaborately covered up (but not really, because someone is always expressing suspicion), and aspects of love verging on brutality, there is a tantalizing film-noir tenor to Sudden Rain. Now that Desperate Housewives is over, you could do worse than keep this tense and entertaining book on your bedside table. I wager you will be hard-pressed to dip in for fewer than one hundred pages a night.
√¢‚Ç¨‚Äú Neil Baldwin√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢s new book, THE AMERICAN REVELATION, is in bookstores now.