WITH A GRAND OLD Georgetown house as the scene of the action, one might expect Maria Katzenbach's novel, The Grab , to be one of those suspense jobs about hanky-panky on the Hill, double-dealing in the CIA, yokels metamorphosing into hostesses. And considering that the 24-year-old author's father is former attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach, one might expect her to have admitted at least one or two politicans to her fictional world. But The Grab is not a book about the family," explains Katzenbach, who wrote the novel in her last two years as an undergraduate at Princeton. "I've tried to write about the sense a family has of itself, its myth of itself, passed on from parents to children. There are three middle-age sisters in my story. They gather together in their mother's house the weekend after the death to divvy up the belongings she left behind. They find out that it's more than silverware, more than furniture and paintings, they're 'grabbing' for. They're fighting for recognition as the one to whom the torch has been passed, the one who best carries on the mother's spirit."
The inventory of things for which the sisters, each in turn, grab, is, in fact, the inventory of things which one filled Katzenbach's grandmother's house in Georgetown. "It's the only aspect I've drawn directly from life," Katzenbach makes clear. "Like most writers, I suppose, my characters take shape like monsters, with the head of an old friend, the body of someone I passed on the street, my own prejudices, maybe. Eventually the characters become real to me and I let them do the talking.
Although reviewers have taken heart from The Grab , viewing the book as further proof that old-fashioned "domestic novel" is back in repute with the laterst generation of writers, Katzenbach insists that when she wrote the book, she was unaware of how many women had contributed to this literary tradition. "My consciousness had yet to be raised. I was not one of those women with Willa Cather on the tip of my tongue. In the past year, since I've have been in the American studies program at yale, I've found time to read Cather and Wharton, Ellen Glasgow and all the others. I think that any woman who writes should read these women."
The author attributes her precocity with words to her parents, Nicholas and Lydia Katzenbach. "My father, as a lawyer, and my mother as a psychotherapist, have such different ways with words, I guess it was inevitable I developed some sensitivity to language. My mother has her ears trained for what a person really means, subconsciously, what he's not saying because he's too represent to say what he really feels. My father has to use words exactly. I was ten years old and home from school, sick, when he has his confrontation with George wallace in the schoolhouse door. I remember Wallace promising, 'I just have a few words to say,' and then going on and on and on for an hour. My father got up and said the same thing, 'I just have a few word to say.' He said his few word: "The law is like this. The kids will be admitted to school.' And that was that.
Although Katzenbach is the only one in her family writing fiction, she is not the only storyteller. "One thing all my relatives take pride in is the number of old family stories they have at their command. Whether they're true or just legendary, we all love them. I use a few of them un my novel. One I like best is how my grandmother chose between the two finalists of all the men who were courting her.She had them to dinner, one Monday, the other Tuesday night. She had the same dinner served both nights; she played the same songs on the piano; she told the same jokes. After dinner she asked each beau out into the garden behind her house in Georgetown. 'What beautiful cherry clossoms,' she said to the first beau. He nodded, 'yes, they are beautiful.' The next night she said the same thing to her other suitor.He leapt up on the fence and broke off a twig from the cherry tree and brought it to her. Then and there she agreed to marry him. Now, I can't be sure that a story like this isn't just at tall tale. It's been told so many times. But then, a little imagination is required to bring the past back to us.
"Maybe the best thing about writing The Grab ," Katzenback says, "is getting these family stories down on paper before they're forgotten. Remember what Yeats wrote? 'Many ingenious lovely things are gone . . .' They're gone but the needn't be forgotten."