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Books: Valley of the Guys

3 minute read
R.Z. Sheppard


by BARBARA HOWAR 369 pages. Random House. $8.95.

In her first novel, Barbara Howar, the swinging Washington hostess turned writer and television personality, updates a story as familiar as My Sister Eileen: old-fashioned girl comes to the big city because she is too special to settle down with a small-town Chevy dealer. In her memoir Laughing All the Way (1973), North Carolina-born Howar outlined just how special she was. Emerging from postmarital tristesse, she became a Washington gossip item. Names dropped like martini olives. Jealousies were disguised by a jovial rictus.

Laughing All the Way was held together by a breezy cynicism that Howar dispensed like hair spray. Making Ends Meet is similarly bound. “I may be a cynic but I’m no whore,” proclaims Lilly Shawcross of South Carolina, the novel’s Howarish heroine. Like the author, Lilly is a woman of abrasive wit who will not go gently into that prescribed afternoon known as middle age. Divorced, 40, and the mother of two, she is also the sassy film critic for a Washington, B.C., TV station.

Lilly is at that delicate point in life where she must splice her youthful spirit to a mature independence. But before these ends can meet, she has to overcome her emotional dependence on men. Father was a remote figure who supplied money but no affection. After her mother’s death, Lilly goes to New York where she becomes a dress manufacturer’s model.

There she befriends Vincent Lazlo, a homosexual designer who turns her into My Fair Lady. His scheme is to shape Lilly into marriage bait for a rich — preferably old — man. Instead, she is snared by Harry Shawcross, a young producer of public relations films who needs a presentable wife to complete his résumé. As Mrs. Shawcross, Lilly moves to Washington where Harry is on the fringes of John Kennedy’s Camelot. But she refuses to play the docile Guinevere. At one point she even draws attention to herself when she is the only woman at a party who does not jump fully clothed into the swimming pool.

Brief Affairs. After the prescribed split with Harry, Lilly pals around with an aging, influential columnist and later finds shelter under the platonic wing of a television executive who becomes her drinking buddy. Her love affairs are brief and physically unsatisfying.

As a novelist, Howar seems to have learned a lot from old movies and talk shows. Her basic technique is the flashback and her keenest instinct is for the spiky remark. “You political types are permitted to get caught with your hand in anything except another man’s,” Lilly tells two Government officials whose groping she has mischievously joined under the dinner table. Such dialogue befits TV Critic Lilly Shawcross, who is described as falling somewhere between Pauline Kael and Rex Reed. As a fictional character she inhabits a latitude equally indeterminate and unlikely — between Becky Sharp and Mary Tyler Moore.

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