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Coming of (Middle) Age : THE HOUSE OF REAL LOVE
By Carla Tomaso (Plume Books: $9, paper; 200 pp.)

December 27, 1992
| Robert Dawidoff 

"The House of Real Love" tells the story of an uncommonly observant, if selectively aware woman whose fate it is to avoid "real love," not to mention real life. She has maintained, however, the appearance of both. She and her lover of 20 years, an oncologist, dwell in a cave designed by a visionary architect in what feels like Pasadena; they are leading an exemplary contemporary lesbian lifestyle. Like most exemplary lifestyles, of course, theirs turns out to mask a congeries of cross purposes and unexamined feeling.

The narrator steeps herself in secret love affairs and a lack of purpose and direction in her own life. She sleeps with her lover whenever, she tells us at the book's opening: "I want to dream. Put more precisely, I sleep with Connie whenever I want to remember my dream. We sleep in unison, tossing and turning as if we're one body or branches of the same tree blown by a sudden gust of wind." Her passionate, inventive, funny, smart author's voice invites the reader to keep her company as her life falls apart and regroups and maybe, wishfully, probably repairs itself.

Connie finds out about the narrator's infidelities and in effect kicks her out of the house of real love. The narrator takes refuge with her therapist--the book has its fantastic dimensions as well as its realistic ones--and constructs a plan to win her lover back. This involves cross-dressing and posing as a gay man writing a book about Aimee Cabot, the visionary architect of their cave, and culminates in a hilarious, shocking episode that transforms the no-longer-ideal couple into pariahs among the lesbian "community."

Part of what makes this book so funny is its equal-opportunity irreverence. Author Carla Tomaso understands the strain that the need for politicized communities of identity places on the individual, in this case lesbian. Tomaso's purpose is not critique but discovery, her dismissals not uniform but inclusive. This is not a lesbian coming-out story, but it partakes of the vitality, surprise and variety of contemporary lesbian writing.

If "The House of Real Love" is funny, very funny, it is also passionate, searching and serious. The narrator's progress is a journey of understanding and a kind of reentry into the land of the living. Tomaso keeps the novel's rollicking plot development apace with its deepening exploration of the narrator's experience of herself and others. The narrator's time playing a man yields this: "And now, without any warning, the scariest thing of all began to happen. It's just a nudge, just an inkling, but damned if I don't feel a phantom twinge of testosterone. 'Sir!' How filmy a thing gender is. I passed. It was easy. Believe it or not, I look around the waiting room with new eyes. Many eyes." And what she sees is but one of many rewards in store for her reader.

There is always a payoff to Tomaso's witty setups. The clever cuts deep to the profound and sometimes scary in this book. Closing the door after an unsettling encounter with the ungainly daughter of the architect whose biography the narrator ends up writing, she observes that "most of us had crappy parents. They weren't good for much of anything either when we were kids or right now, when we need them almost as bad. So what we end up having to do, whether we like it or not, is to be parents to each other, for better or for worse."

Perhaps the most wonderful element in this novel is the love, the love expressed and discovered and examined but especially the love made. Our confidential narrator has a very interesting sex life and finally a real love life. Tomaso's descriptions are sexy, funny, searing, offhand, purposeful; sex and the dance of intimacy fill this book with the immediacy they give to life and convey heat and joy and intensity. One doesn't even feel like a voyeur when the narrator herself does. "The House of Real Love" is a sexy book.

But let Tomaso have this last word: "You see it's not like there's anything big to say really. It's been said before, in one way or another. Life is all in your head. It's all in the way you decide to look at things, as simple as that. The mystery is about what it is that makes you decide."

Dawidoff is most recently the author of "The Genteel Tradition and the Sacred Rage: High Culture v. Democracy" (University of North Carolina Press) and with Michael Nava of the forthcoming "Created Equal: Why Americans Should Care About Gay Rights."

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