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Esther Freud evokes the broad panorama of a family's history.

By Megan Harlan

MAY 11, 1998: 

SUMMER AT GAGLOW, by Esther Freud. Ecco Press, 243 pages, $23.95.

It's not surprising that English novelist Esther Freud -- great-granddaughter of Sigmund -- chronicles family dynamics with devastating precision. What's less expected is the distinctly pre-Freudian feel of her work. With her arch wit, smartly twisting plots, and empathetic grasp of human nature, she recalls Jane Austen more than she does the father of modern psychology.

In her third and most accomplished novel, Esther looks to Sigmund as something of a muse, fictionalizing not so much his life as his times. Here, she contraposes a historical saga about the Belgards, an upper-class Jewish family living in World War I-era Germany, with a contemporary story about a Belgard descendant, a 27-year-old actress in London. As she alternates between the interrelated narratives, Freud subtly explores the changing shape of families over the course of this century and the struggles with love and loyalty that have remained constant throughout.

Summer at Gaglow opens with the understatement characteristic of Freud's prose: "The Belgard girls did not admire their mother." Indeed, in the summer of 1914, these girls -- seven-year-old Eva, the novel's spirited central character; quiet middle child Martha; and bossy, 15-year-old Bina -- want nothing to do with Marianna, their amiable, intelligent mother. They disapprove of her for wearing red velvet dresses and dangling ruby earrings to the constant array of garden and dinner parties at Gaglow, the family's luxurious country estate, and they deem her "vulgar" for smoking cigars and playing cards in the absence of her husband, a sober, successful merchant who remains somewhat aloof from the family. The person responsible for the girls' hostility is none other than their beautiful, fiery-haired governess, Gabrielle Schulze, whom they lovingly call "Schu-Schu." Writes Freud:

At first Marianna did not realize the effect the governess was having on her daughters. In the space of a few months, Bina, always wayward and given to fits of temper, became distant and cold, and the other two, ruled as they were by their elder sister, followed suit with their behavior. It was only after returning home from a month-long visit to a spa town that Marianna clearly saw how they had changed towards her. Instead of rushing, their little arms outstretched and groping for the presents she had hidden in her cape, they lined up stiffly and curtsied, one by one. "My darlings," Marianna gasped, horrified at this cold reception.

In contrast, the girls lavish affection on their handsome, sensitive older brother, Emanuel, who celebrates his 21st birthday as the novel opens. Eva in particular worships him, spying jealously as pretty girls vie for his attention. Emanuel's heart, however, belongs to some unnamed woman, as Marianna discovers when she unearths a cache of love poems in a locked desk drawer. His illicit affair will result, years later, in an unpopular marriage -- and family disgrace.

At this point, Freud has assembled all the elements for a traditional Gothic novel: the mansion with vaulted passageways, the conniving governess turning her charges against their own mother (to what end, we are not certain), and, most intriguing of all, a series of whispered, furtive goings-on as unseen people -- secret lovers? thieves? -- meet in the bushes, in the ice-house, in the library. But the First World War breaks into this eccentric, cloistered 19th-century ambiance, and Emanuel is drafted away. As the deprivations of wartime and outlashings of anti-Semitism fall on the Belgards, Marianna and Gabrielle wage their own war for the balance of power in the family -- and ultimately settle for a sophisticated and wholly unconventional resolution.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the 20th century, Sarah, an out-of-work English actress, learns she is pregnant by a boyfriend she has no intention of marrying. Her casual, confessional first-person narrative traces both her own unconventional upbringing and her decision to become a single mother. When we first see Sarah, she is posing for her father, Michael, a successful, playboyish painter with a slew of children by different women. As Sarah's pregnancy progresses and her portrait takes on new focus, Michael relates fractured memories of his family mythology: of the Belgard "curse" and of his long-ago childhood holidays at Gaglow. (As in Freud's 1992 debut novel, Hideous Kinky, which told the partly autobiographical story of a five-year-old girl grumpily traveling Morocco with her hippie mother in the late 1960s, the author makes use of real-life details; here, her father, the painter Lucien Freud, seems to have inspired the character of Michael.) Sarah's growing fascination with her distant family history dramatically informs how she will shape her own.

Ultimately, Freud places the Holocaust at the invisible heart of this novel, with the two domestic dramas of a Jewish family present and past balanced on either side. On the one hand is her spare evocation of the Kaiser's Germany, its aristocratic opulence and systemic anti-Semitism foreshadowing the rise of Nazism in a way that is tremendously unsettling; on the other are the scattered English descendants of Holocaust survivors, contemplating a visit to their family's lost German home. These characters may be concerned mainly with the conventions of family and the meaning of blood ties, but their intimate decisions resonate richly with the broad panorama of 20th-century Jewish history.


Megan Harlan, who lives in New York City, has written for the New York Times Book Review and Salon.


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