Four new novels about young women facing some of life's most difficult challenges.

Amy Shearn
Amy Shearn (Adam Tetzloff)
  Enlarge Photo    
Reviewed by Jane Ciabattari
Sunday, August 3, 2008

Headlines give us the general outline of the complicated choices women face today and of a range of abuses that have become increasingly routine. But a new batch of summer novels adds texture and context to these reports of troubled lives. These aren't made-for-TV movies in print. They're chilling explorations of psychic distress with a clear message: Times are not easy. A new range of pressures puts women and girls at risk. Reading these literary dispatches is no picnic. But there are substantial pleasures in the artful ways these authors tell it like it is for too many young women.

HOW FAR IS THE OCEAN FROM HEREBy Amy Shearn Shaye Areheart. 305 pp. $23

Amy Shearn's idiosyncratic narrator and the damaged children she befriends anchor this tantalizing novel about a surrogate mother who has second thoughts just weeks before her due date. At eight months pregnant, Susannah Prue takes off from Chicago heading for the Pacific Ocean. After four days, her car breaks down, forcing her to pull into the seedy Thunder Lodge motel. The child's expectant parents panic when she doesn't return calls, but she's off the radar.

Marlon and Char, the couple who run the isolated desert motel, accommodate her grudgingly. Their mentally impaired teenage son, Tim, follows her around. Two Floridians, Dicey and her 9-year-old niece, Frankie, check in. As Susannah dozes and dreams in the heat, yearning for connection, this collection of misfits begins to form a family around her. Susannah and Tim develop a strange attraction. Frankie tells Susannah that she is really a boy. Everyone shows a lively interest in the impending birth.

The controlled, somewhat antiseptic couple who have engaged Susannah's services stew and fret, but her journey is so powerfully imagined that their concerns fall flat by comparison. In the end, Susannah becomes the catalyst for unexpected tragedy, bringing How Far Is the Ocean from Here to a startling and heart-wrenching conclusion. Shearn's mesmerizing language and dramatic flair make this first novel a standout.

SOMEBODY ELSE'S DAUGHTERBy Elizabeth Brundage Viking. 342 pp. $24.95

Elizabeth Brundage has a penchant for turning topical subjects into gripping novels. The Doctor's Wife (2004) was about an abortion doctor whose life is threatened. Somebody Else's Daughter follows Willa, a child given up for adoption by San Francisco junkies in 1989. She eventually finds herself at a prep school in the Berkshires, living far more closely to her blood relations than she realizes.

The layers of the Berkshire community around the Pioneer school range from resentful townies to wealthy newcomers escaping New York City. The bucolic prep school contains troubles no one suspects. Joe Golding, the chairman of the board (and Willa's adoptive father) hides the source of his fortune in the porn industry. The starchy headmaster batters his wife, a teacher at the school.

The latest newcomers have deep roots in the community and their own secrets to hide. Nate Gallagher, who has been hired to teach writing, is the son of a former Pioneer teacher (and also Willa's birth father -- a coincidence that's a bit hard to swallow). Claire Squire once attended Pioneer and comes from a wealthy family that funded the school; her teenage son Teddy and Willa are drawn to each other, as are Nate and Claire. Complications ensue. Sex, drugs, violence and murder are all in the Brundage mix. Even if she wraps up the plot a bit too neatly, she holds interest with artful descriptions of the Berkshire seasons and her mastery of the varying points of view. She captures the nuances of class and generational perspectives, from brothels, pit bull fights and a Pittsfield battered women's shelter, to the horse barns and cocktail parties of Stockbridge.

THE BOOK OF DAHLIABy Elisa Albert Free Press. 276 pp. $23

Elisa Albert showed promise in her short story collection, How This Night Is Different (2006), in particular with her audacious "Etta or Bessa or Dora or Rose," a story in the form of an aspiring writer's fan letter to Philip Roth. The Book of Dahlia, her first novel, is both an extended send-up of the "cancer journal" genre and a tragic glimpse of a life not lived. Not a winning combination in this author's hands.

Dahlia Finger, living in Venice, Calif., in a cottage paid for by her father, is smoking pot and watching a rerun of "Terms of Endearment" when she has a grand mal seizure. She wakes up in a hospital bed with a diagnosis of brain cancer. Her father moves her back into his house, her highstrung Israeli mother reenters the family orbit after many years away, and her hated rabbi brother is notified.

Each chapter begins with advice from what Dahlia calls The Book, "It's Up to You: The Cancer To-Do List" -- from "Understanding Your Diagnosis" to "Forgive and Forget." Dahlia's days of radiation, chemotherapy and support-group meetings are interwoven with reminiscences of her first three decades. She recalls her awkward high-school years, visits to her mother's family's kibbutz, a lesbian phase in college and a stint in New York City. She wonders how she might have brought cancer upon herself and fantasizes that her diagnosis might finally exempt her from "snarky judgments." "She was unassailable. She was going to die." Dahlia has appeal and wit, despite her loser persona, but the distinctive voice and stream of one-liners that render a short story memorable are not enough to keep The Book of Dahlia alive.

IODINEBy Haven Kimmel Free Press. 223 pp. $24

Haven Kimmel, who has written two captivating memoirs about growing up in Indiana -- A Girl Named Zippy (2001) and She Got Up Off the Couch (2006) -- goes astray in her fourth novel, a mash-up of Jungian UFO lore, Oedipal acting out and Exorcist-style child abuse scenes.

Kimmel sets the stage on the first page: "I never had sex with my father but I would have, if he had agreed." This from the dream journal of Trace Pennington, a bright, troubled Midwestern college senior who has enrolled under a name she found on a gravestone, "Ianthe Covington." She lives with her dog in a deserted farmhouse, showering at a truck stop, avoiding campus except for classes. Her story unspools via the dream journal she is keeping for her "Special Topics in Archetypal Psychology" class and her gradually emerging memories. For starters, when she was 9 her mother began spiriting her away at night to a church group that tortured her to drive her demons out. This triggered visitations from friendly animals -- a black rabbit, a huge black cat -- who help her during these and other, later abuses. Before long it's clear that this narrator is psychotic. Her memory gaps and hallucinations make the story blur and wobble.

Trace takes up with a much older professor, who provides new makeup, chic clothing and manners, but there is no "My Fair Lady" happy ending. As Trace moves into a sophisticated new life, she comes unmoored and so, alas, does this ultimately baffling novel.

Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short story collection "Stealing the Fire" and president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company