FICTION

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Reviewed by Ann Hood
Sunday, December 23, 2007

THE WORST THING I'VE DONE

By Ursula Hegi

Touchstone. 260 pp. $25

Ursula Hegi's luminous new novel explores the relationships between mothers and daughters, men and women, past and present. The title reflects a question that permeates the story: What is the worst thing you've done? By the end, the answer given by each of the three main characters is revealed to the reader, though not to the other characters. This theme of secrets -- of hidden acts and desires -- reverberates. What are the boundaries of love? How far is too far? What cannot be forgiven?

These are the dilemmas faced by childhood friends Annie, Mason and Jake. Their friendship is entangled in attraction and jealousy. Ultimately, Mason wins and marries Annie, even though each of them has had a secret relationship with Jake. Then, on Annie and Mason's wedding night, her father and her very pregnant mother are killed in an automobile accident. The baby, a girl named Opal, survives, and the three friends agree to raise her together.

Moral lines merge and blur right from the beginning, which opens in the present: "Tonight, Annie is driving from North Sea to Montauk and back to North Sea as she has every night since Mason killed himself." In a heartbreaking and powerful scene, we drive with Annie as she listens to talk-radio doctors advise desperate callers and simultaneously "talks" to her dead husband. "Listening to people so desperate that they confess their misery to radio psychologists distracts Annie from the rope cutting into Mason's graceful neck," Hegi writes. The question of what led Mason to suicide provides the tension in the novel.

Annie is an artist who makes collages from nature, paint and paper. Hegi, the author of 10 other books, including Stones from the River and Sacred Time, writes in the same manner, layering images, bits of information and points of view to create a narrative collage. Jake, Annie, Opal and even Mason narrate. He tells us what happened on the night leading to his suicide, the night when the three friends went too far.

The idea of collage is reflected in Hegi's use of time, which suggests how the past affects the present. The story of Annie's mother, Lotte, and her best friend, who emigrated from Germany after World War II to work as au pairs, unravels beside the present story. (Hegi herself immigrated to the United States from Germany when she was 18 years old.) After Mason's death, Annie and Opal move in with that old friend, whom they call Aunt Stormy. Providing the novel with a wise and insightful voice, she fights for justice, protests the Iraq war, observes and advises Annie and Opal. "Outside I'm fifty-five," she says, "but inside I'm my true age -- twelve. The age I yearned for when I was a child in Germany. The age that has settled itself within me." She gives Annie and Opal their history, describing her and Lotte's early days in America, acquainting them with pieces of their mother's past.

Hegi also examines the effects of grief on her characters. Annie's paralysis after Mason's death, her aimless driving at night, her "conversations" with him and her edgy state all ring true. And this grief has attached to it the added guilt associated with suicide. Annie, Jake and Opal all are left to question themselves and Mason. In a painfully emotional scene, Annie awakens from a dream in which Opal, wearing a purple windbreaker, is drowning. Trembling, she runs to Opal's room to be sure she is safe and then snatches the purple windbreaker from its peg and hides it, as if she can ward off danger and trick fate. " There," Annie thinks. "She is safe now, my daughter."

Annie has an additional burden: Mason committed suicide in her studio, and her workplace is ruined for her by his act, her creativity stifled by grief. This depiction not only gives Annie's character another dimension but also reflects a poignant truth about loss and its aftermath. Although grief can fuel creativity, it also can bury an artist's spirit. Hegi compassionately chronicles Annie's creative journey from her inability to work all the way through to a difficult, exhilarating return. "I crumple and rip the purple fabric, glue it to a canvas and overlay it with beach glass, driftwood, a circle of dried catbriers . . . no longer dodging my panic and sorrow and rage but letting them become the background against which I'm reconstructing our lives."

The Worst Thing I've Done is the work of a mature and masterful writer at her peak. The layering -- the collage -- of character and point of view, tragedy and healing, creativity and loss, loyalty and fidelity, love and jealousy, all combine with lyrical prose in a story that resonates long after its end. ¿

Ann Hood is the author, most recently, of "The Knitting Circle."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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