An earlier Lisa Alther character, Ginny Babcock in "Kinflicks", once described herself as "The Emma Bovary of Stark's Bog", and Clea Shawn, the central figure of "Bedrock", also has much in common with Flaubert's heroine. Indeed, she can be diagnosed as a sufferer from what in French would be called "le Bovarysme"- a state of restless discontent coupled with a firm belief that the next major development in one's life, whatever it may be, will bring lasting happiness and cure one's discontent for ever.
Clea is a successful, middle-aged art-photographer, married to a wealthy New York business executive and the mother of two children, both students at university. She and her husband Turner have an "open marriage" which allows them to conduct affairs with other parties, and Clea has thrown herself passionately into a number of such relationships in a vain attempt to find a greater intimacy than she enjoys with her husband. Neither wealth, success in her career nor her other lovers, however, have brought Clea much happiness, and she is continually in search of something that will bring her the satisfaction she craves.
At the start of the book Clea has just fallen in love again. Not, this time, with a person but with a place- Roches Ridge, the small town in Vermont where she has (against her husband's wishes) bought a house as her rural retreat. Clea has an idealised view of small-town life as a peaceful retreat from a bustling, crime-ridden city like New York. It is, however, a standard literary cliché that the more idyllic and tranquil a small town appears on the surface, the more likely it is to prove to be a place of rampant corruption, raging hatreds and illicit sexual passions, and Roche's Ridge proves to be no exception.
There are two distinct threads running through the book, one basically serious, the other basically comic. The serious thread concerns Clea herself, her attempts to find happiness and her relationships with those around her. The most important figure in her life is neither her husband (a remote figure who spends most of his time away from her on business trips abroad) nor any of the other men she takes as lovers but her closest female friend, Elke, a German-born sculptress. Clea and Elke are contrasting characters. Both are discontented, but only Clea looks for a cure for discontent. Whereas Clea is an eternal optimist, persuaded that every change in her life, be it a new love affair or the purchase of a rural property, will bring her the contentment that has hitherto eluded her, Elke is a pessimist, convinced that life is both cruel and meaningless and that happiness will forever elude her and the rest of humanity. Both see themselves as creative artists, but their attitude to art is as different as their attitude to life. Clea's photographs are deliberately composed to be aesthetically appealing, with anything sordid excluded, whereas Elke's sculptures focus on cruelty and suffering.
The more serious scenes in the book generally take place in New York. The comic thread concerns the people of Roche's Ridge. The portrait that Ms Alther draws of the small community is a broad and satirical one. Just about every inhabitant is either mad, or bad, or both. The town is home to two groups of outsiders, one an apocalyptic religious cult, the other a lesbian-feminist commune, both led by sinister guru-figures. The natives of the town itself, however, are scarcely less eccentric; each seems to be prey to his or her own private obsession, such as Calvin Roche, who longs to escape to Texas to live the life of a cowboy, the bodybuilding hairdresser Jared McQueen who tries to persuade all the town's women to adopt punk hairstyles and Dack Marsh (real name Dacron), an artist who specialises in making arrangements of animal bones. (The scene where the simpleton Dack is taken up by New York sophisticates as a "primitive" artist allows Ms Alther to aim some sharp satirical barbs at the modern art scene). Underlying the placid surface of Roche's Ridge is an undercurrent of sexual perversity and lawlessness; one of the book's key moments comes when Clea makes an unwelcome discovery about the nasty goings-on in the shed owned by her neighbours, the disreputable Marsh family.
The book's main weakness is perhaps that its serious and satirical threads are not wholly integrated. At times I felt that I was actually reading two novels at once, switching from one to the other at the end of each chapter. There is an attempt to bring together all the book's themes at the end, but I did not find this wholly successful. I felt that Ms Alther achieved a more satisfying blend of the serious and the satirical in her two earlier novels "Kinflicks" and "Original Sins", possibly because in those books the satire had some serious points to make. In "Bedrock" it seems more like satire for satire's sake. I also found myself growing bored with the depressing figure of Elke, with her tendency to wallow in her own misery and in the misery of others.
Nevertheless, I have still given this book four stars because of the wit and style of Ms Alther's writing, particularly when she is in her comic mode. Although her satire has less political edge than it did in her earlier works, I still found myself laughing at the eccentric townsfolk of Roche's Ridge. Clea, for all her idiosyncrasies, is a likeable heroine, an older (but not necessarily wiser) version of Ginny Babcock. At least things finish more happily for her than they did for Emma Bovary.