By Ann Hood
Bantam. 215 pp. $18.95
REMEMBER upbeat movies like "How To Marry a Millionaire," where three young women seek love, fame and fortune in New York? Something Blue may have all the right details -- from punk movie tryouts to minimalist lofts -- of the Big Apple in the '80s,but at heart it's an engaging, warmly old-fashioned story of the perils and endurance of romance, work and friendship.
The novel centers on Lucy, an aspiring illustrator troubled by her lover's depression as he fails to find a job as a dancer; her best friend, Julia, a sometime actress and professional housesitter who avoids her bleak past by assuming other identities; and Katherine, Lucy's estranged college roommate, who defies her conventional life by jilting her doctor fiance on their wedding day and convincing Lucy to grudgingly take her in.
These are women hitting 30, who grew up "trapped between the radical sixties and the apathetic eighties. They were either born a few years too early, or a few years too late. They weren't sure. It felt harder somehow for them to make their mark." Hood skilfully conveys both the unsettling revision of their early aspirations and the nuances of their emerging characters. Relentlessly perky Katherine seeks passion and still feels the attraction of predictable comfort. Julia, the quirkiest and most intriguing of the three, falls in love in spite of herself. Lucy defiantly rejects a past where she tried to conform and concentrates on her talent.
Something Blue is a funny and perceptive portrait, not only of each woman, but of the particular ways women bond as friends. Its resolution is optimistic, even sentimental, but somehow appropriate in a novel that celebrates the warmth persisting in relationships despite conflict and misunderstanding.
TO BE NICE
Donald I. Fine
313 pp. $19.95
"YES, THERE are families that don't have brothers who flunked everything in school but could recite the beer commercials for every brewery between the Appalachians and the Rockies," thinks Crosby, the self-created "normal, all-American" narrator of Susan Saiter's fine first novel. "Families that don't move every time the carpet gets a dirty footprint."
But that is not the Rawsons, an offbeat, peripatetic family moving through the midwestern suburbs of the 1950s and '60s and always falling short of the American dream. Crosby's father, aspiring to a cultured, middle-class life, is repeatedly defeated by his insecurity and his hot temper. Her beautiful mother, the world's worst housekeeper, defies pretension and has a lively charm. Then there's her vulnerable younger brother Ben, a budding schizophrenic, who is both sweet and capable of outrageous lies.
Cheerleaders Can't Afford To Be Nice is a funny, compassionate, and often painful account of the ways eccentricity and failure conspire to shape Crosby and threaten to shipwreck her conventional life. She becomes the only success in the family, an A student, a cheerleader, a college graduate. Although she loves Ben, she pushes him away. But after spending her adult life apart from her family, she is drawn into a search for a homeless, injured, and missing Ben in New York.
The novel alternates chapters on the streets and in the shelters of New York with flashbacks of Crosby's and Ben's growing up. Although both storylines deal honestly with difficult themes -- loneliness, rootlessness, loss and mental illness -- Saiter's touch is light and her characters amiable and engaging. She accurately depicts the heartbreaking ties that bind us to those we somehow love, even though we don't know how to help or change them.
By Kevin McIlvoy
250 pp. $18.95
Kevin McIlvoy's second novel also takes on loss, eccentricity and maladjustment, and triumphantly transforms them into a successful quest for identity. His feisty, inventive heroine, Peg, is a long-time resident of a halfway house for the mentally unstable, where she has taken refuge after the birth of her daughter Molly and the death of her brother, returned shockingly maimed from Vietnam.
Peg also teaches a creative writing course in a "non-traditional" college program, where she strongarms the students into writing episodes of her life as their assignments, then shamelessly changes them to suit herself. Little Peg includes these true and embroidered versions of Peg's past in Peg's current narrative. In class and life, she is concerned with "the development of Peg/me as a character and/or human being. My magician heart has been bound, locked, and chained in a box, blindfolded, lowered deep in my dark human will. But, just to show me it can, it spectacularly escapes."
Having a character write herself as a character is a neat postmodern trick. McIlvoy pulls it off with charm and skill because his writing is consistently fresh, unpretentious and funny. The supporting characters are as appealing as Peg: Francis, her long-time roommate at the halfway house, who wanders the streets by day and writes touching, self-revealing letters at night; sensible, perceptive Molly; Peg's organized, sweet husband; her curious assortment of students; her poet friend who invests in real estate on the side; and even Sergio, DJ ofthe "Brazilian Hour," whom Peg and Francis faithfully listen to for a touch of exotic romance in their lives.
Like Cheerleaders Can't Afford To Be Nice, Little Peg manages to be offbeat and serious at the same time. Peg's class provides humorous insight into the creation of fiction, her tales into how we survive pain and her idiosyncratic voice into the mysterious ways we struggle to invent ourselves.
By Roland Merullo
256 pp. $19.95
WHO hasn't dreamed of escape to a tropical paradise, even though in truth we can never escape ourselves? Leo Markin, the protagonist of Roland Merullo's moving first novel, lives seven years on a tiny island in Micronesia before he returns to a decaying beach town in Massachusetts to confront his unsettled past. The coral reefs and gentle rhythm of life on Losapas are more exotic, but Merullo evokes the atmosphere and people of both communities with vivid detail. The novel is beautifully balanced considering that it covers such disparate physical and psychological territory.
Markin seeks peace of mind in Losapas after his stint as a Marine in Vietnam ended with the disturbing murder of a 10-year-old girl. The Losapans offer simplicity, wisdom, quiet warmth; unlike tormented and reckless Markin, "Micronesians changed things inside themselves and let the planet be." Even on the island, however, Markin is troubled by guilt about the war and the elderly, widowed father and unhappy girlfriend he left behind.
An unexpected visit by an American sends him home, to the once close-knit and comforting Italian community which asks of him "not that he be good, but that he be loyal." There Markin was raised by his grieving father and loving godfather to believe in patriotism and family, values which no longer sustain him. Returning, he comes to terms with their diminished lives and the conflicting strands of love and violence he carries within himself.
Merullo's writing is lucid, observant and poetic in its descriptions of place, and his portrait of Markin is emotionally intense. He lives in the tradition of characters who seem fated by temperament, as much as circumstance, to struggle against and challenge themselves. Linda Barrett Osborne is a Washington writer and critic.