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Stepfamily Ties

By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, December 10, 2004; Page C03


A Novel-in-Stories

By Paul Mandelbaum

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Berkley. 295 pp. Paperback, $14

I wish there were another word besides "quirky" to describe off-the-beaten-track fiction. There are definite boundaries and barriers around "quirky." For instance, Paul Mandelbaum's "Garrett in Wedlock" is a little like Augusten Burroughs's "Running With Scissors." If you like either of these books, if you buy the vision, if you say, "Sure, life often really is like that; I've lived through something very like that," you're the one who ends up sounding suspect, looking quirky. People will go "tsk" at you.

Nonetheless, there it is. People in the blue states, emotionally speaking, will probably recognize the texture of Garrett Hughes's marital predicaments. People in the emotional red states, those who go in for picnics and sustained monogamy, no mattered how tortuous, may shrug and soon put down the book; after all, why does Garrett have to get in so much trouble anyway? Why doesn't he take account of the fact that the woman he's marrying has two -- count them, two -- ex-husbands, one a Norwegian explorer, the other a vain Indian bigamist who regularly shaves his body hair and came into his marriage with Garrett's intended with a whole other wife of his own? Not only that, Garrett's bride-to-be, May-Annlouise, has children by both marriages: Turpin, son of the explorer, still little enough to be playing with crayons, and Lynn, his high-strung half sister, older by a few years and daughter of the bigamist.

But Garrett loves May-Annlouise. Her parents died when she was 18, and these earlier liaisons may have been nothing more than gallant attempts to re-create a family she could call her own. Garrett's parents have been divorced for years; the mere thought of them gives him the heebie-jeebies. He craves honest love and the love of a good woman, so he signs on as husband and stepfather. The four of them must sink or swim now, or at least try to stay in the same family boat.

Of course, marriage, divorce, remarriage and all the ensuing consequences (I'm talking about life now, not art) are far more complicated than advertised and offer myriad opportunities to behave well or badly. For every stepfather who steals his stepkids' Halloween candy, there are those who step heroically up to the plate as "real" dads. Half brothers and half sisters may be more loyal to each other than the full-blooded variety, perhaps because the fragile marital craft may be in more danger of foundering. Plus, there's the strange fact that divorce doesn't always work with the finality of marriage. Once you're married, it's often hard to expunge those spouses. Some obligations often remain -- the ties of former affection.

Thus when Tor, the wildly handsome explorer ex-husband, shows up at Garrett and May-Annlouise's house, explaining that he has a New Guinea version of mad cow disease and wants to die at "home," his ex-wife takes him in. She must, because of the kind of person she is, and she does. A few years later, when Lynn expresses a desperate wish to see her biological father (her entire early life will be spent pining for her absent, "real" parent), Garrett glumly volunteers to accompany her to India. He does it because of who he is; "upright" is how he describes himself to himself.

In the author's hands, this kind of marriage becomes a metaphysical road trip. Four relative strangers enter into it, some committed to the enterprise, some deeply skeptical -- those kids, for instance -- but good manners and shared experience inevitably knit them together. Turpin grows up to be a (frighteningly realistic) troubled kid -- inarticulate and sometimes a little violent, but when his India-crazed half sister converts to Islam and demands an arranged marriage, he does everything he can to rescue her (because he is who he is), and nearly loses his life in the process. It turns out that Turpin and Lynn are bound more than they ever knew by a terrible and touching love.

And how about that whole other wife over there in India? What about her hopes and dreams? How can she be accommodated, included, in the jerry-built family that Garrett and May-Annlouise have cobbled together? There's an answer to this question, and the couple rises to the occasion. But the last chapter here disappointed me. It seemed to cover behavior that's been done to death in literary terms, with an ending that came straight out of a creative writing class.

But what's a trite final 29 pages compared with a previous 266 pages of surprise, originality and joy? "How come all of your characters are so weird?" a snide talk show host asked me once when I was pushing one of my books. "They're not weird," I answered stoutly. "They're human, that's all." And they'd get along famously with Garrett, May-Annlouise, Turpin and Lynn. The people who don't like them can go out to whatever wholesome picnic is currently in session.

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