SINCE FIRST NOVELS by young writers have often semi-autobiographical sagas of adolescence or early adulthood (remember Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise ?), it was not suprising that the '70s gave birth to a host of novels about the problems of growing up absurd and female in America. And many of them had their moments - more than a few, in fact - of being funny and moving, of reminding us all too painfully of the way we were: one thinks of Alix Kate Shulman's Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen , Louise Rose's The Launching of Barbara Fabrikant , even Erica Jong's Fear of Flying , to name just three. But after ten or so of these novels, one-understandably begins to lose interest, whatever the validity of the insights. So it was with some sense of weary deja vu that I approached The Grab , a first novel by 24-year-old Maria Katzenbach, daughter of the former attorney general and member of Princeton's class of '76. What on earth did the title mean? I could only guess.
Instead of a detailed description of the sexual practices of residents of coed dormitories, however, I discovered to my delight and admiration that The Grab is a sensitive and amazingly perceptive portait of three middle-aged sisters who come together for three days and nights after the death of their wealthy, aristocratic mother to dispose of her possessions. The title refers to the method of disposal, a tradition in the Luskin family whereby the survivors gather after a family death to choose, in turn, room by room, the possessions of the deceased that each most wants to own.
The mother, Barbara Knowles Luskin, though dead, is in many ways the dominant figure of the story, just as she has been the dominant figure in the lives of her daughters. A highly successful journalist, a model of independent womanhood in her day, she gave up her career to marry a man of great wealth and position who was an invalid for much of their long marriage. Resolutely she lived by what she call "The Code," an unspoken moral prescription that had less to do with distinguishing right from worng than with knowing what was fit and seemly. But if the Code gave her strength, it also robbed her of a certain warmth; before her death she told one her daughters that if she could live her life again there was only one thing she would do differently, "I would have loved you more when you were little." That one thing would have made all the difference, of course. But The Grab is not about a parent's lack of love, so much as it is about the complexities of family relationships, how one inherits strengths and weaknesses, and how the influence of family pervades our lives.
It strikes me as particularly remarkable that one so young as Maria Katzenbach would understand this so well and that she would have such a keen and compassionate perception of that generation of women caught in mid-life between the very different worlds of their mothers and their children. Each of them is herself a memorable character: Barbara, calm, steady, happily married for years, Louisa, tense and intellectual, always something of a rebel, who thinks she wants a divorce; and the youngest, Sadie flighty, unstable, the daughter who seems to have taken the Code most seriously and who seems most bereft by her mother's death. They are much more complex than these brief descriptions allow, however, and what each learns about herself and her relationship to her family in the course of "the grab" is significant and wholly believable.
The Grab is not without its faults. The device of having the mother describe her own death in the opening pages - actually the description moves back and forth between first and third person - seems a bit mannered and precious, as does having her ghostlike voice reappear at the novel's end. There are also moments of overwriting, such as this: "She floats, hovering like the moon in the dark bedroom, floating, a suspension of spirit suspended; then, slowly, she accends into the black, open zero, an ice-cold, blue-lipped angel."
But such moments are few; Katzanbach has on the whole a sure sense of style and a firm control of her material. But most of all, she has the true novelist's gift, the kind of "empathetic imagination" that characterized Henry James or Edith Wharton: that capacity to leap sex and generation to bring the other fully into being. This is why we can be assured of hearing much more from Maria Katzenbach.