Identifying the patterns of life, tracking the process of modern thought and action, requires an author who knows a big idea from a little one, a tall order in a day of moral relativism and cultural confusion. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala appears to be such a writer. She is German born, of Polish-Jewish descent, British educated, a long-time resident of India, and a part-time New Yorker, giving credence to her ability to write with some authority on a variety of cultures. The troubling question is whether she damages her piercing observations by overstating her case and whether her aim is directed at the proper target.

In 1975 Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust, a novel set mostly in India, won England’s Booker Prize for the best novel published in England that year. In Search of Love and Beauty returns to the themes of Heat and Dust: personal identity, moral disintegration and lack of direction (especially in modem youth), sterility and reproduction, and the burdens and effects of time and ancestry. But the author’s most recent effort is no improvement on its predecessor. In place of the previous preoccupation with the faith and traditions of lndia, the new novel takes us to the Academy of Potential Development, a psychospiritual center accepting the money and presence of “a motley crew with motley problems of sex, drugs, nerves, religion.”

Some of the characters seem to have been plucked from Heat and Dust, but they have been twisted in a more sinister direction here. The fixation on shocking sexual behavior and the absence of normative characters makes for a depressing book. Even when the author reverts to Indian settings, the theme remains decadence.

Jhabvala does succeed in demonstrating that people are the creators of their culture rather than the innocent victims of it. Her subjects are three deracinated German immigrants who bring to New York their language and their furniture, but absolutely no moral or evaluative sense. They socialize with other “German and Austrian refugees who had managed to get their money out but felt bored and stranded.” Their “search for love and beauty” is superficial and filled with unresolved contradictions. No one is in pursuit of truth. Preying on these rootless people is the notorious Leo Kellerman, a man “into human nature” who—first through theater and then through the Academy—encourages self-obsession. “Self centered here wasn’t a bad word, it was an aim, an ideal,” the author explains. Kellerman, of course, has his own agenda. He seduces and lives off wealthy women, takes over their apartments for his classes, and humiliates them and his other patients through his degrading speech, action, and Academy policy. His clients, nevertheless, hunger for more. A typical follower scorns her parents for being “so proud of being liberal agnostics”—even as she complains that her son has ruined his chance to become a marine biologist by joining a Hare Krishna community.

Family roles and sexual obligations are helter-skelter. Successful marriages are nowhere to be seen, and homosexuals are coming out of every closet. The novel does not label homosexuality as a perversion, but at least it is honest about the disgusting desperation of the aging homosexual man and about the incessant appetite of gays for young boys. By stressing the fact that fathers were absent from the early homes of these deviants, the author even suggests a cause for their frenetic and sterile sexuality.

Disintegration of moral standards, a self-obsessed citizenry, and cultural disease are timely subjects. And the range of the novel is impressive, contrasting sharply with most modern fiction about this or that middle-aged adult finally deciding to grow up. The problem with extending a story of boredom and anxiety over three continents is that the numerous characters fail to take on sufficient importance—they seem to be mere objects of curiosity. There is more to American civilization than self improvement czars and their willing victims. There is illness, but there is also recovery and health. What this novel needs is less restless anomie and some of the more gentle, concentrated scenes found in the author’s earlier work.

In Search of Love and Beauty by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala; William Morrow; New York.