This is no classic, but it is a truly good novel, and a perfect, realistic portrayal of marriage in the age of the Cleavers. Told from three perspectives–that of a professor having an affair with a student, his precociously, dangerously intelligent, yet incredibly naive son, & a wife the professor treats as an ignored china doll placed away in a curio cabinet–we hear of the confusions each member of this family has within themselves and towards the others, their inability to understand each other, their mutual alienation, and their various, often abortive, normally destructive, attempts at self-discovery. This is a superb novel of the deleterious effects of hyper-individualism and the very American desire to seal off the process of creating ones own identity from those who surround us.
What truly sets this novel apart is the quality and variety of MacAuley’s prose. The man can flat-out write a sentence, and he voices each of the three characters perfectly. Each character has two voices; that which he or she uses in relationship to the other two family members, and that used in reference to the self. Howard, the professor, is coldly clinical (he’s a psychologist by training) about his son and wife and their development; Gordon, the son, thinks about each of his parents in a naive, confused teenaged way that is complicated by his Holden Caulfield-like hyper-intellectual malaise; Helen, the wife, thinks of her son and husband (and her social circle, as well) in the polite, deferential somewhat flighty way that “good housewives” would have been expected to express. But each character’s self-directed voice, a self-directed voice that comes alive as a result of the conflict precipitated by Howard’s infidelity, is full of complexity, nuance, and sad humanity. Watching the characters vacillate between these voices is moving, beautiful, harrowing, distressing, and deeply rewarding.
While marred by a lack of focus in places that makes it perhaps a chapter or two too long, as well as an annoying, unnecessary subplot between Gordon and a Falstaffian art professor, The Disguises of Love is a strong novel, and one that deserves wider readership. It’s out of print, but worth searching out.