MARY ELSIE Robertson's heart-rending new novel opens with the unearthly sweetness of a June robin and concludes with the terrifying devastation of an August hurricane. These and other meticulously recorded natural events during a single summer in Nantucket seem to be Nature's commentary on the human action in the novel, which involves an extra-marital love affair and its shattering effect on a family. The insidious disintegration at the center of Family Life is also mirrored in art: in a typically quiet but emotionally pulverizing scene, Jane, the Other Woman, sneaks into her lover Philip's house to "pillage" its secrets, and discovers his wife Estella's collage-in-progress of family photographs: "The juxtaposition of images was grotesque, the severing of family members one from the other brutal -- they were ripped, torn from one another's grasp. And in the middle of all that outrage the smiles showed an idiot, mindless happiness, sinister in its ignorance."
Nature, art and Robertson's searing prose conspire to do extraordinary things, but the main power of Family Life is, as its title implies, its lifelike rendering of the ordinary. The characters are captured with a microscopic clarity and authenticity -- Estella, the steely, aggrieved wife, who comes to see the frightening fragility of families; Philip, the dependable, even stuffy husband, who is dismayed to discover that "since he'd fallen in love with Jane he did not know from one day to the next what he might be doing"; Jane, his lonely mistress, whose very vulnerability attracts Philip because, ironically, it reminds him of his children before they began growing up; and the children themselves, who take on all the terrible weight of their parents' breakup as they begin subtly to sever their own ties to each other.
The story is told in the third person, but each chapter is seen from an individual character's point of view. Interwoven in these narratives is a series of first-person essays by Chrissy, the youngest daughter, on the family behavior of animals, which provide a mysterious and revealing commentary on the action. Throughout Family Life, the reader experiences an intricate criss-crossing of perceptions and dramatic ironies as family members, adult and child, begin doubting and second-guessing each others' motives, sometimes falsely, often with terrible accuracy, as Philip's betrayal sets off after-shocks that rival the force of the hurricane in the novel's wrenching finale.
I can't think of any novel I've read recently that is so uncompromisingly realistic and clear-minded, yet so organically full of the tension and drama one associates with a commercial "good read."
THE NEW NOVEL by A.N. Wilson about the convolutions of love is all witty surfaces and dark undertones. The seductively old-fashioned omniscient narrator begins with "once upon a time," 20 years in the past, when the novel's three "nice young women" shared a London flat, and when their talk, "in their cornflake-colloquies, ironing-intervals and hairdrying-confessionals, was, between the three, chiefly of Men."
Love Unknown then moves from talk to adult behavior, focusing on the story-book perfect marriage of Richeldis, the beauty of the group, to Simon, a "sort of English Omar Sharif." Monica, the group's eccentric intellectual, has a secret crush on Simon, which she does not act on until 20 years into his marriage to her best friend. As it turns out, the latter isn't perfect after all. Simon is "annoyed and slightly bored" with his cheerfully domestic wife, who among other things, does not appreciate serious music: "She thought it was a trivial thing, in the same order as not liking bread and butter pudding. For him, it revealed a fundamental crudity in her nature. One might quite like a person who saw no point in Brahms. But one could never respect them or take them seriously."
This passage, like so many others, is wickedly funny and ironic, but also cold-bloodedly serious. In Love Unknown, Brahms is a much more serious issue than romance or adultery, which turn out to be dismayingly ephemeral and over-rated, bumping up against what Monica calls "facts," and what Simon calls "boring old porridgey Life," a principle that always reasserts itself, with new lovers or old. Love is also up against irony, an ultimate principle of behavior as well as Wilson's favorite device. After a heavenly sexual encounter, Simon becomes "privately worried by Monica's glowing. Hitherto, her smiles had always been satirical, as if she were biting back some observation on human idiocy. Now, she smiled with an almost cretinous happiness." Soon enough, however, the silly smile is gone. Irony wins.
At the center of the many black-comedy subplots is the mental breakdown of Madge, Richeldis' mother, a distinguished publisher who imagines that the new "whiz kids" of publishing -- with their marketing strategies designed to flatten all literature into soft-core pornography -- are contaminating the air. As is usual with Wilson's satire, even the looniest sections are disturbingly close to reality.
IN RON LOEWINSOHN'S Where All the Ladders Start, the anarchic demands of the heart are far more durable and all-consuming than those depicted in Love Unknown -- at least as strong as the ordered demands of marriage and children. Loewinsohn's title is an allusion to Yeats' "The Circus Animals' Desertion," which identifies the "foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart" as the source of all that is important in life and art. When 43-old David Lyman, a San Francisco composer and conductor, begins having an affair with Ginny, a 20-year-old flute player, he assumes it will be brief and that no one will get hurt. But gradually he falls in love, a process so sweetly intense that it obliterates the tenuous happiness he enjoys with his wife "like one melody drowning out another."
As this simile indicates, Loewinsohn is fond of musical analogies and scenarios, some of which are ingeniously embedded in the structure of the story. Something of his method is suggested in David's obsession with the Barto'k Third String Quartet, which he listens to in his car as he drives to Ginny's apartment and which features "two versions of the same theme playing catch with each other in a fugue . . . Both versions move toward the same point of resolution; they would get there at the same moment, although by different routes."
Indeed, very often in the novel different versions of the same experience play catch on the page, usually in the form of brief images or memories. This is not to say that Where All the Ladders Start is a cold, technical book. The tone is seductively romantic and many of the musical analogies are intensely sexual, with the similarities between these two pleasures drawn tautly and dramatically.
Unfortunately the novel's ending lacks the kind of satisfying cadence we might expect from such a richly musical work. David is also the protagonist in Loewinsohn's celebrated first novel, Magnetic Field(s), where, ironically, he watched in dismay as a good friend ditched his wife for a sweet young thing. Loewinsohn may well have plans for another sequel, for after a crescendo of back-and-forth interior monologues about what to do with his crisis, David simply affirms his abstract resolve to change, and the novel grinds to a halt. The final muddle here is not only David's, but the reader's.
IN THE bedroom scene that opens Sightings, Susan Trott's marvelously hyper and entertaining new novel, Sunny, the 18-year-old heroine, tells her new lover, who has just informed her he is a spy, that her lifelong friend Chris has just run away with her father; furthermore, that her mother has gone mad out at sea and is searching endlessly for her son, Andy, who disappeared 15 years ago in a boating accident.
But that's only the beginning: Chris' homicidally angry father later claims that Sunny's father actually murdered her mother, meaning that this ghostly woman who mysteriously floats in from San Francisco Bay at crucial points during the action must indeed be a ghost. Surely something mysterious is afloat, for, as the novel develops, the obsessive behaviors of the older characters begin subtly repeating themselves in the children and grandchildren.
Susan Trott is in full control of this somewhat deranged material, telling the story from multiple first-person points of view, in short takes. Each voice (especially Sunny's) is full of charm and quirky individuality as it puts another spin on a tale that is part love story, part mystery and part exploration of the outer fringes of obsession. There is even a brief, affectionately parodic take from the point of view of Ernest Hemingway, who figures briefly in the Paris sequence of the late-'50s portion of the story.
Sightings is fundamentally a modern version of a Greek romance, replete with exotic settings, dramatic abductions and escapes, seemingly miraculous events and an orphan with mysterious origins, all of these elements animated by romantic passion -- in this case, two passions, since Sunny has two men she can't bear to live without.
The writing is catchy and sophisticated but also, when it needs to be, unabashedly sentimental. Trott captures her Northern California setting with an eerie lyricism, as in this description of the heroine's near-fatal delirium: "Sometimes my eyes would open to the dim light of evening with a flight of brown pelicans streaming by the window as if their putting a hole through the air with their beaks and bodies had awakened me."
Susan Trott likes to end her books with clever irony. Here, the ending is lovely and haunting, with some things resolved, others left tantalizingly ambiguous, still others left rotating in a strange circle. This is an offbeat novel, to be sure, but a peculiarly satisfying one.
THE EXPOSITION of Illumination Night, Alice Hoffmann's sixth novel, lays out what would appear to be a skillfully told, deliberately ordinary story about middle-class people living on Martha's Vineyard. Hoffman's unglamorous characters include Andre, a silent, somewhat depressed motorcycle repairman whose business is failing; Vonny, his wife, who experiences panic attacks that grow into full-blown agoraphobia; Simon, their 4-year-old son, who seems stunted for his age and may have medical problems; Jody, the lonely teen-ager next door who develops a passionate crush on Andre that threatens his already-tenuous marriage; and Elizabeth, Jody's dying grandmother whose "bones feel as if they're already drawing her into the earth." Given the bleakness of these lives, Vonny's agorophobia seems merely a physical variation on the entrapment all the characters feel.
Hoffman ticks off the musings and sensations of these isolated characters in the present tense, with concise declarative statements: "Jody has learned quite a lot since coming to the Vineyard. How to defrost a refrigerator, how to fake an orgasm, how not to flinch when she helps her grandmother into the bathtub. Her parents have now officially separated." The most remarkable writing evokes the closing circle of Vonny's panic attacks, which drive her into her house and make the post office and grocery store "as unreachable as distant planets."
But Hoffmann is not just a gritty realist. She also has a penchant for finding a near-gothic strangeness and enchantment on the edges of everyday experience. Here the mystery starts when the younger characters begin seeing an abnormally huge and beautiful young man -- referred to throughout the novel simply as the Giant. This myth-like character becomes as convincingly real as anyone else, especially when Jody begins a secret love affair with him that sets in motion a series of frightening, ultimately healing transformations in the other characters' abilities to face anxiety, loneliness and death.
Most contemporary novels give the reader either one point of view or at least one point of view at a time. Hoffmann, however, practices an unusually fluid form of subjectivity that becomes a kind of total omniscience: she glides from one character's consciousness to another -- sometimes floating above them all to make a judgment -- in a single paragraph or even sentence, without breaking the rhythm of her prose or storyline. From a technical as well as emotional standpoint, this is an impressive, stirring performance.
Jack Sullivan, editor of "The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural," writes frequently about contemporary fiction.