By Lisa Zeidner
Random House. 268 pp. $24
STEPS AND EXES
A Novel of Family
By Laura Kalpakian
Bard. 321 pp. $23
Reviewed by Bella Stander
Think of all the meanings implicit in "layover": an overnight respite during a journey, sex during same, an end to that sex. Zeidner plumbs all those connotations in this zesty, funny and sweetly touching account of a traveling saleswoman on the lam. As a poet -- her collection Pocket Sundial won the Brittingham Prize -- Zeidner is obviously used to having her words do double (and triple) duty; but even allowing for poetic license, narrator Claire Newbold's name is a little top-heavy with portent. However that's a minor wrinkle in an otherwise sleek and smoothly flowing narrative.
Claire, who is 41, didn't start out intending to be homeless, she confesses. But when she falls asleep after swimming too long in a hotel pool and misses a flight to her next sales call, she discovers that she can stay in hotels without paying and -- even more important -- without anyone knowing where she is. The trick, which she refines over the course of a month, is to go to a hotel where she regularly stays on her rounds selling "medical equipment so dull, ugly, and without personality that anyone would feel a chasm of churning emptiness open beneath them to have to deal with it on a daily basis." She swims in the pool without checking in and, still wet, gains access to an unoccupied room by using a chambermaid as an unwitting ally. To this gentle reader's regret, even fictively this scam works only in motels in second-tier burgs, for when Claire tries to sneak into the Philadelphia Four Seasons, she's tripped up by its high-tech security system and -- her credit card having been reported as stolen by her seemingly vengeful husband, Kenneth, a cardiothoracic surgeon -- she has to pony up real cash to get a room.
There is something seductive and exciting about slipping through the cracks of the tightly scheduled workaday world, especially for women, who are supposed to be rule-abiding, accessible and accounted for every hour of the day. But Claire is doing more than just avoiding the automated reminders of quotidian life: faxes, e-mail, voice mail. She's running away from the unbearable pain of losing her small son in an auto accident, her inability to conceive again and Kenneth's one-time affair.
Like so many of us, she begins with the delusion of her own invincibility but in the end comes to acknowledge her fragility and need to be connected to husband, family and the greater world. Along the way -- and certainly not in revenge against Kenneth, she insists -- Claire has a quick tumble at the Four Seasons with a teenager named Zachary and offers herself as "a present" to his lawyer father. She also checks out publications by the Other Woman's poet-husband, which enables Zeidner to work in some deliciously clumsy poetry and wicked jabs at "Earth Mothery American poetesses and the bearded, bearish Irish poets [who] deserved each other." Cardiothoracic surgeons are "pretty distasteful" too: "Most of them are hunched-over, balding guys, of below-average height, in unflattering glasses." But Zeidner also includes passages of maternal grief and longing so poignant they make one's throat ache.
If Claire suffers from lack of family and a feeling of disconnection, Celia Henry, the central character and occasional narrator of Steps and Exes, is overrun with family and very much rooted to one place. Ever since she was widowed as a young bride in the stoned-out '70s, which netted her a decaying school that she turned into "the most famous bed-and-breakfast in the San Juan Islands," Celia has scorned marriage and extolled "the Unfettered Life." The irony is that Celia is the most fettered person of all, since in the course of numerous liaisons she has reared two daughters by different fathers, a stepdaughter and twin stepsons, and all but one of the latter come home to roost on little Isidora Island -- along with assorted offspring, in-laws, spouses and significant others. It's hard to keep all these people, their relationships to each other and their life stories straight as they descend on Celia for her daughter Bethie's engagement party, but they eventually get sorted out as the story continues on its leisurely yet often surprising way.
Kalpakian (author of Graceland) posits that on the cusp of the 21st century the concept of family is open to reinterpretation. "Nuclear didn't describe families," Celia muses. "I think the metaphors must be chemical. Molecular. In the molecular family people are connected without being bound. Families like ours, created from the rag ends of other families, molecularly connected to make something entirely different, combined to create a new whole." As it reacts to external stresses -- illness, divorce, shame, New Yorkers -- Celia's molecular family combines, splits and reforms in various patterns, always with her as its vibrant nucleus.
Steps and Exes is definitely a "women's novel," in that all the main characters are strong-willed females and their men are variously childish, weak, self-centered, whining and mendacious -- or, in the case of Celia's long-lost first love, dead. The only totally good living man, Celia's stepson Grant (his absent twin brother is preciously named Lee), is likened to a mast and remains stolid and wooden throughout. With its Pacific Northwest setting and freeflowing cast of aging hippies, ancient Bohemians and psychobabbling recoverees, at times the book reads like an update of Tom Robbins's Another Roadside Attraction. It is saved from being just another summertime saga to doze over at poolside by the indelible characterizations, loving yet gimlet-eyed evocation of island life and Kalpakian's tart and pungent reflections on the nature of family, life and love.
Bella Stander is a contributing editor of Publishers Weekly magazine.