ROSE SOLOMON TURNER, 27, drives her Triumph into a tree and sustains terrible injuries. She lives the rest of her life (we leave her in a nursing home) paralyzed, grieving, guilty. Although she regains the power of speech, she refuses to say the word "I." Her brother Nick charges that she has succeeded in punishing forever the family she raged against as an adolescent. But the reader suspects that Rose's deepest anger has always been reserved for herself: the musical talent she sabotages, the Jewishness she repudiates, the bad marriage she endures (her husband disappears after her accident), the chidren she fails to protect from her drinking and depression.
The book does not come to us through Rose's tortured consciousness, however. C. E. Poverman's central character is Rose's father, Dr. Joseph Solomon, who does not believe in miracles or despair. His wife Bea becomes obsessed with medical breakthroughs, cures, psychic healing: "Bea went on giving Rose massive doses of vitamins, getting her up mornings, singing to her; seeing to an endless succession of neurologists, observers who might bring fresh perceptions, speech terapists, phsiotherapists. She spent a lot of time on what she called concentrating on Rose being well." Solomon's son Nick withdraws from the family tragedy because "She's turned the clock back on us, and we're going to be here forever. . . . Here we are, living in the afterlife of a failed suicide."
But Dr. Solomon, the consummate realist, understands his responsibilities to his daughter, as well as the limitations of his love for her: "'She might, if given the right expectations, make a reasonable adjustment. Not be happy. No. But maybe enjoy a few small pleasures. A cigarette. A tv program. Her children. And not be miserable, either. She has to do what we all have to do. Adjust to the way things are, not the way we want them to be. Make some compromises. Perhaps if she had learned to adjust sometime earlier in her life, she wouldn't have -- ' Solomon waved his hand in the air."
In an operation to lessen the pain in Rose's ruined foot (Bea and Rose believe she will walk again), "Solomon looks at the square of draped flesh. Luminous. . . . The knife in his hand, the familiar ballance, the belly of the blade, the flesh glowing. In a gentle motion, he draws the knife across the skin, the skin parting, the sudden rise of blood to the light." The father offers what his skill allows, but he knows how much remains, painfully, beyond his powers.
Life does such things to people, Poverman insists. He refuses to judge or analyze. He shrugs at psychology, religion, science. When Rose blames herself for the ordeal with which her exhausted father must cope, he tells her, "No Rose, some things just happen. And we don't know why." One is reminded of the doctor in Grace Paley's wonderful story, "Conversation With My Father," who screams at his modernist writer/daughter, "Tragedy! Tragedy! Whe will you look it in the face?" Unlike Paley, however, Poverman provides no hip, ironic, pithy voice to offset the suffering of his characters: we must look it in the face. Resignation -- the tone is too sad to suggest acceptance -- permeates this book. It is conveyed primarily through an understated style that often approaches blandness, that withholds the resonance a more heightened diction would have provided. One yearns for the lyrical transcendence that Rosellen Brown creates out of a similar situation in Tender Mercies . But Poverman is not interested here in the power of language to transform experience. In Poverman's world there are no transformations. Rose will not walk again. Nick will not return. The grandparents will raise their daughter's children, but they are already troubled boys, and we are not meant to see them as the family's salvation.
So what do we take with us from Solomon's Daughter ? A sense of the family as a prison, as R. D. Laing might suggest? Sophocles' message of the doom we carry in our genes, bequeath our children, act out in our own adult lives? Indeed, Poverman's book is bleak, fatalistic. Yet there are moments of redeeming tenderness, gestures of affection rendered in perfectly-realized tableaux: "Once, after Rose's screams had driven away some visitors, she sat quietly in her wheelchair looking out into the yard. Solomon . . . wanted to say something to her, but just didn't know what. He walked over and placed his hand on her shoulder, felt the brittleness of her delicate shoulders through her shirt, her body grown brittle and inflexible through lack of movement, like someone old and immobile. He took her clenched right hand, opened the fingers, held her hand a moment. She turned her head awkwardly and looked up at him. He looked at her a moment, squeezed her hand. "Rose. Can I get you something? Some tea?'"
In this novel, the passages which break our hearts are the very words which console.