Envious Shadows is a deftly crafted, engrossing contemporary novel, one of those works which is not afraid to face the grim realities of life and the cruelties of society. Instead of a main female and male protagonists, the story revolves around four main characters, all in some way alienated and simply trying to make the best of their lives in a world that ultimately is uncooperative and oppressive.
Fiona Sparrow is a shy, young black woman who works in a house for schizophrenics and manic-depressives in Portland, Maine. Though well-educated, she is deeply insecure, a result of being the only black person in Waska, where she grew up. Adding to her identity conflict is the fact that she is the daughter of a white woman and a black man. The house where she works may very well serve as a metaphor for her life, for as a minor character states early in the novel, “To be black in America is to be schizophrenic.”
Lowell Edgecomb has come back to Portland after been away many years. The son of a hippy mother and a father who deserted him early in life, he is also in many ways alienated and plagued by feelings of inferiority, shame, indifference and passivity. After having come into money in a most unexpected way, he now plans to build a cottage close to his mother’s house. At a softball game, he meets Fiona, and the rapport between them is instant. Most of their friends don’t mind their “mixed” relationship, but other people in their community strongly do. It is with these people—Nazis and KKKs—that Lowell and Fiona have to deal with.
Bill Paine is Lowell’s half brother. In spite of this, they are very close and trust and support one another. He has a solid, stable job, yet, like his brother, he is afflicted with feelings of inferiority due to his upbringing. He too has been deserted by his father. He has the “perfect” marriage, and his wife Becky is the “perfect” mother to his two beautiful young sons. Yet Bill feels lonely, ignored, unloved, and ultimately vulnerable to another woman’s charms.
Marilyn, described as a “female Don Juan,” is Fiona’s white cousin. This is one of the loneliest, saddest, most hopeless characters in this book. Her tragedy lies in being unaware of her own selfish and destructive behavior. A temptress at heart with no consideration for anybody but herself, she “steals” Bill from his wife and children, an event which eventually has disastrous consequences for Bill.
Another character who, though minor, is worth mentioning because of his influence all throughout the novel as well as his impact in the end, is Rett Murrey. A Nazi with dreams of greatness, he exemplifies all the ignorance, pathos, cruelty and injustice of society. His ugly essence permeates the whole novel like a poison cloud, even when he’s not present in a scene.
The characterization in this novel really stands out. Bill Paine is the best portrayal of an unfaithful husband as I have ever seen in a novel. With the candor and sharpness of a razor, the characters’ voices come to life, exuding all their insecurities and feelings of powerlessness. The other aspect of the novel which stands out is the insightful, elegant prose of its author. In spite of the book’s small print and long, slow paragraphs, most of the time the words flow beautifully and effortlessly, keeping a tight grip on the reader’s suspension of disbelief.
Controversial issues of prejudice, racism, and the conflict between men’s and women’s roles are the landmarks of this novel. A beautiful work which depicts life in all its grim realities, Envious Shadows is a rewarding read and one I strongly recommend for group discussions.