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October/November 2006
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Black Oxen, by Gertrude Atherton (1923)

THE TITLE of this still-provocative, still-timely Roaring Twenties bestseller (filmed the year after publication) derives from a Yeats epigraph: "The years like great black oxen tread the world." Indeed, a heavy sense of inexorable mortality suffuses this tale.

Lee Clavering is a thirty-four-year-old drama critic in New York when he sees a mysterious, uncannily beautiful young woman at the theater. He falls instantly in love. Seeking information on this European countess, Mary Zatianny, he is baffled by her resemblance to the youthful Mary Ogden, now an elderly, expatriate socialite. After jousting with the woman, he learns her secret: she is indeed Mary Ogden, aged fifty-eight, but restored to youth by Viennese radiation treatments on her ovaries. She avows her love for Clavering as well. But the eventual disclosure of her secret focuses the media and jealous rivals on her, making for a less-than-ideal romantic atmosphere. Moreover, Mary Zatianny's young body is in conflict with her jaded mind. Clavering is courting Haggard's Ayesha.

Ripe with mordant social observation, trenchantly written, this novel results from Atherton's own identical Steinach treatments at age sixty-four, which she swore woke her from a mental and physical torpor. In portraying Mary Zatianny as the first of a new science-derived clade that would marry the energies of youth with the icy cunning of age, Atherton (1857-1948) was an Extropian before the word was invented. Bruce Sterling obviously agrees, since his novel Holy Fire (1996) features a protagonist in an analogous situation. Her name? Mia Ziemann.

—Paul Di Filippo

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