PAUL FLEISCHMAN's Rear-View Mirrors reminds me of an architectural drawing, a beautiful thing in itself that may or may not become a habitable place. The intelligence of it is clear, the design is complete, but the form is imprisoned on the page.
The protagonist of this novel, Olivia, has lived in California with her mother for 16 years, knowing her father "solely by report." When he invites her to New England because he is seeking an heir, she goes, beginning what she calls the "duel of indifference" between them that lasts a year before he dies.
It is a self-consciously fashioned story, interrupted by flashes forward and back that rob it of its momentum. Though Fleischman devises this structure to comment on such themes as growth and mortality, there is not enough plot to support these large ideas.
Olivia is refreshingly intellectual, but she looks almost compulsively at butterflies, stones, gardening, swimming, and stars as personal metaphors. Her father is an alienated man who makes dramatic, funny pronouncements about the things he truly loves -- his daughter is not among them. This is a strangely bloodless account of their blood tie.
Troubled relations are also the subject of M.E. Kerr's Night Kites, in which Erick, 17, betrays his friend Jack, Nicki the local seducer manipulates both, and Erick's brother Pete begins dying of AIDS. Although there is too much camaraderie and sexual joy going on to make this a sad book, the struggle the characters have just liking each other is sad indeed. With Jack's opening assertion that "I really care about Nicki," suspicions arise.
Perhaps it is only in plays and movies that characters adequately show their ragged affections in highly-charged talk. Here, though the dialogue races, the characters act, and the scenes unfold, the conflicts are never quite ignited. It isn't talk we miss, but contemplation. Even with plenty of cause for remorse and guilt, the characters don't have time.
Kerr is a light-footed writer with a keen sense for the things that grate on young men, but are the cliche's in her book her own or are they Erick's? Can a high school boy be forgiven for saying, "Count on Mom's heart. Count on Dad's head," as if it were a fresh, revealing statement, or for describing the girls in his life as "types" -- one of them wholesome, the other a vamp? Can an author?
People are kinder in Cynthia Voigt's Izzy, Willy-Nilly. Nearly all the action takes place indoors, in the hospital room where Izzy is recovering from an accident, and in her parents' orderly home. There's a stimulating moment late in the book when Izzy's brothers, minor characters, surprise her by returning home from college and filling the kitchen with motion, talk, and masculine presence. It's as if someone had suddenly opened a window and let in the wind. The scene is intentionally vibrant, but why, we ask, is the rest of the book so static?
The answer lies with Izzy, a supremely well adjusted girl who accepts a date with a boy who gets drunk and drives them both into a tree. Though the boy passes out, unhurt, one of Izzy's legs is eventually amputated.
The story is not as sensational as it sounds. It has the stock characters of a hospital story -- -good doctor, devoted parents, and an especially well-drawn loyal friend -- but Voigt concentrates on Izzy, focusing less on her Terrible Tragedy and more on the gradual rocking of Izzy's assumptions about her life. "I don't think I ever wanted to be more than nice," Izzy tells us, and for her this has had a particular, valid meaning. It is no longer, of course, enough.
Unfortunately, Izzy is just too restrained, too understanding, to carry this long, deliberate novel. At story's end she is "more than nice" -- there is, as she puts it, a "richness in me" -- but surely an intelligent young woman does not have to be maimed to achieve such subtle wisdom about her friends, her family, herself. IN Cat, Herself (Harper & Row, $12.50, ages 11-14), readers will meet another of Mollie Hunter's passionate heroines. This one, Cat, is a traveler, a member of a band of modern-day nomadic Scots. With their strict sexual mores, their strong families, and their belief that "every single life has its own importance," the travellers provide Hunter with the perfect milieu for her favorite themes.
Despite some gripping scenes (a home birth is one) and a sympathetic portrait of the travellers' resourceful ways, the novel has a put-together feeling. This is partly due to the breaking down of the plot into three major parts, beginning when Cat is 11 and ending with her marriage, and partly to Hunter's practice here of describing what characters are about to say.
Nevertheless, Hunter has clearly aimed at Cat's marriage as the climax of the story. Marriage maintains the traveller community (however doomed it may seem to the reader to be), it results in children, and it is Cat's destiny. Somehow, Hunter persuades herself that Cat has reconciled her ardent need for autonomy with her need to belong to others. But traveller love is possessive -- to be engaged is to be "marked down." When Cat is seen naked by two strange men who clearly intend to assault her, it is her parents and her fiance' who are shamed -- shamed by her. Rape, it is implied, is worse than death.
These messages strike me as deeply contradictory, even wrong. Yet I admire Hunter's eagerness to write about the passages of life for her young readers. The traveller world is a closed one in which death, birth, marriage, work, love, pleasure, and hatred are closely integrated. Unlike the people on the outside, who are described as afraid of the day they never see, the travellers are an idealistic group. They are not afraid.