CLASS REUNION, Rona Jaffe's account of the lives of four Radcliffe grads from the 50s, is a swamp. As Jaffe's characters slog their way from college to 20th reunion, they get progressively muddier. Each arrived at Rona's Radcliffe as a clean, bright, stereotype--Jewish American princess Emily, WASPy golden girl Daphne, good-timing Southern gal Annabel, and studious but passionate Chris. Jaffe drags them through a mire of messy divorces, deformed kids, homosexual husbands, and personal failures. You begin to hope each traumatic life crisis will be the final quagmire, putting the poor girl out of her misery. But of course they all surface at the 20th reunion.
The book has all the style and plot interest of "As the World Turns." Each character has four important episodes--discovering sex in college, getting married, discovering problems with sex in marriage, and having kids. Each also has a quirk, a flaw in her otherwise perfect Radcliffe patina. Emily is neurotic, Daphne has epilepsy, Annabel likes sex and alcohol, and Chris is obsessed with a homosexual. By the time they get back to Cambridge for their reunion, these tiny flaws have created major messes.
Jaffe, it seems, hoped depth of character would make up for lack of direction and action in the plot lines. But each attempt at psychological depth, at developing a character or portraying a crucial moment comes off like so much slop thrown at these cardboard figures to keep the readers interested. Jumping from one woman to another and updating us on their lives requires a lot of fast stepping. Jaffe doesn't turn in much of a performance, however. If you want to see the finale you have to wade through 300 pages of tedium. Expect to be disappointed. There is no splashy ending, no grand resolution. Jaffe just kind of shuffles off stage, leaving her limp figures behind.
Class Reunion is not the worst of the recent books on Harvard. Unlike Enrique Lopez, author of The Harvard Mystique, Jaffe has no axe to grind with Harvard. She's not wailing about the decay of the institutions of College Life, like Lansing Lamont in Campus Shock. Her stories read more smoothly than The Mem Hall Murders. In the end Harvard fares pretty well, because she uses it only for background: dropping names of buildings and alumni, reminiscing about sneaking a feel in an Eliot House room or necking on the steps of Briggs Hall. The Harvard name may sell a lot of books, but it won't save the story.
JAFFE SEEMS to think she's hip. As she parades her characters through the wreckage of conventional mores and nonchalantly points out homosexuality, feminism, premarital sex and other 70s concepts, Jaffe strains to create a sense of insight, a feeling that she has artfully revealed new truths about our society, about women, or families, or something. But the unrivaled conventionality of her vision, the banality of her language, and the vapidity of her characters make you wonder if Rona Jaffe has ever stepped outside her New York apartment. She writes as if she's been watching TV for the last 16 years.