UNLIKE MANY WHO WRITE for young adults, Sue
Ellen Bridgers affirms the earned sweetness of life without ever pretending it has a cream center or sugar coating. Like her earlier prizewinning novels, Home Before Dark and All Together Now, Notes for Another Life acknowledges the high cost of growth in disenchantments and losses; yet the first and last chapters frame even madness and near-death in tough-minded earned joy, as the Jackson family drives both times toward a difficult visit at the state mental hospital, but "singing as they went."
Taped inside the door of their music cabinet at home is a Nietzsche quotation and the novel's recurring theme, "Without music, life would be a mistake." Wren, an aspiring pianist, 13, and her brother Kevin, 16 and moody, live an almost harmonious life with their grandparents Bliss and Bill Jackson. Two harsh realities regularly intrude: their father, Tom, withdraws periodically into clinical depression and must be hospitalized, and their handsome mother, Karen, for six years a high fashion careerwoman living far away, has found her own means for withdrawal from both children. The natural highs and lows of their adolescence are matched, even exceeded, by the cycles of hope and disappointment which each parent brings to the Jackson household--Tom's shock treatments, improvement, return home, then increasing symptons back toward fetal immobility, or Karen's bright holiday visits with expensive presents, always followed by farewells and silence.
Grandmother Bliss must stand in for this missing parental generation, showing throughout what Bridgers has previously emphasized in an interview, "the Southern woman's two faces, gentility and power." Wren, to whom Bliss taught music, has learned those two tunes well, and will confront her future love-career conflicts better than Karen has. Kevin suspects the real cycle may be inherited craziness. After rejections from his mother and his girl friend, he chooses the ultimate withdrawl ("from now on he would trust only himself") and attempts suicide with an overdose of Seconal.
Bridgers' lucid prose never falsifies Kevin's slow recovery nor the Jacksons' adjustment to the scars of all these withdrawals. By a realistic slow maturing, Kevin and Wren move toward "another life" which will be more responsible than that of either parent, to the accompaniment of that "music" which seems to symbolize all the risks of love, trust, and generosity without which any life becomes so unbearable that individual withdrawls can be understood and forgiven.
In all three of her novels, Sue Ellen Bridgers endorses the survival of family love and values, which nearly always are stronger in women than men. Grandfather Bill Jackson is a mere shadow here, and both tormented males lack the resonance of Bliss or Wren. Slowly and steadily the women teach the rest what has come naturally to them. At novel's end, hearing the women in song, Kevin "croaked out a little noise. . . . He doubted he would add much, a ragged note now and then, a jumble of words, but at least he would be with them."