At Paradise Gate is a poignant chronicle of the final twenty-four hours of a fifty-two year marriage. As Anna Robison nurses her dying husband Ike, her daughters and granddaughter gather round her creating a network of fraught and complex tensions, a highly-charged portrayal of a family on the brink of change. Jane Smiley sensitively describes the frenetic interaction between these three generations of women as each of them struggles to accept the impending death of a husband, father and grandfather. The novel focusses, rather self-consciously perhaps, on the issue of a family’s collective memory as Anna watches her daughters ‘hammering out an agreed version of their common history.’ All of these women are looking to the past for some kind of objective stability as each confronts their own particular horror of the future.
The character of Anna Robison is achieved wholly successfully. The elderly matriarch is representative of a generation of women whose lives were never their own, subordinate to their parents, then their husbands and finally, in old age, their children. Anna’s tragedy, however, is not just universal but significantly her own. Where the novel fails is in recognising the other characters to the same extent. Helen, Claire, Susanna and Christine remain two-dimensional symbols of middle-age and youth and whilst the fears and disappointments of these conditions are touched on, they are never fully explored or internalised.
The condition of ‘womanhood’ itself is central to the novel, throwing the reader headlong into a quagmire of ‘women’s issues’, such as abortion, miscarriage, infertility and domestic violence, through which each of the traditional feminine roles is examined and re-evaluated. When the novel was written, fifteen years ago, this approach may bave seemed daring and much more relevant but my feeling is that the mid-nineties reader has read this novel too many times already. Perhaps in the post-feminist age we would like an exciting and charismatic man to stride into the midst of all this knitting, oestragen and neurosis and kick start our miserable protagonists into living. I think, perhaps, that we have seen too many ‘sensitive portrayals of womanhood and family life’ to be greatly moved by yet another.
Reviewed by Polly Rance