Few events carry more weight than the death of a parent, and for an adolescent girl, the sudden loss of a mother also means the irrevocable loss of childhood. In "Rituals," her accomplished first novel, Linda Gray Sexton poignantly describes the faltering journey into womanhood of the bereaved Kat Sinclair as she struggles to find her own ground and to separate herself from the mother she still mourns.
A sophisticated Radcliffe senior, Kat is determined to act like an adult--that is, to refuse to break down and cry--when the college dean informs her that her mother has died in an automobile accident. Burdened by grief and an undefined guilt, Kat decides to take on her mother's responsibilities--to play the role her mother has left vacant. Only she, Kat feels, can do what her mother did--care for her father, Kirk, and comfort her younger sister, Paige. Like a child who believes in magic, Kat clings to the customs and traditions of family life in the desperate belief that by following certain "rituals" she can appease the gods and make the past return.
Seduced by this grief-distorted logic, Kat abandons her aspirations for a career in publishing. Instead, after graduating from college, she returns home to preside over the family. Although her mother's will has made her independently wealthy, Kat's exaggerated sense of family duty keeps her from enjoying her freedom and living her own life. However hard she tries, she cannot escape her mother's memory.
But the past was never as perfect as Kat's dreams would suggest and her fantasy soon turns into a nightmare. Her sister Paige becomes a cruel, unyielding rival for the attentions of a father who makes difficult demands of his own. Uncovering a family secret, Kat begins to pay back her father's debts--a process begun by her mother, and thus one Kat feels obliged to continue.
As she strives ever harder to fulfill her mother's role, Kat finds that she can only dull the pain with increasing amounts of alcohol. She must sink to the lowest level--losing her lover, her friends, all self-respect--before she admits what has happened to her. Kat's realization that she has become an alcoholic and her attempts to recover make up the often-compelling second half of "Rituals," but her sense of loss remains at the book's emotional core throughout.
Perhaps, though, Kat has lost something she never had. The family rituals to which she attaches so much meaning frequently turn out to be mere formalities. These rituals are the secular observances of a privileged class; they include drinking dry martinis before dinner, eating lobster with champagne on Christmas and dining regularly at Boston's best restaurants. The Sinclairs possess little or no religious feeling; for them there is only a code which declares "sex, psychiatry and death"--as well as all emotions, it seems--to be unfit subjects for conversation. It is little wonder, then, that at novel's end, Kat begins to search for a different set of rituals--religious rituals, rituals of belief.
Although it is not a perfect book, it is a haunting one in which Sexton has given a chilling portrait of a rite of passage. She describes Kat's solitary journey with grace and clarity and the texture and details of Sinclair family life seem painfully accurate.
Sometimes, though, the book is rough-edged. Confrontations between Kat and the other characters often end abruptly and the reconciliations come too easily. When Kat decides to finance the family's failing business, one wonders how she manages to keep her actions secret from her father. At one point, Sexton hints darkly at the nature of the father's relationship with Kat's younger sister, then throws this particular theme away. Although the writing is often lyrical, at times Sexton strains too hard for a poetic image and there are moments when her ear fails her entirely: "She drew him to her raw edges, raw and open with the pain, and she cauterized them together with his touch."
Primarily, one wishes that the mother herself had more of a presence in "Rituals." She floats through the novel like a ghost and though Kat mourns her with anguish, one learns little about the relationship. Because the mother remains essentially an unwritten character, we begin to fill in the gap with facts from the author's life. Thus, when we are told that Kat's mother was artistic and emotionally fragile, an alcoholic and pill addict whose death, though caused by a car accident, was not unexpected, we think, perhaps inevitably, of the author's own mother, the poet Anne Sexton, who committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in her garage in 1974, during her daughter Linda's senior year at Radcliffe.
This reading seems particularly unfortunate because both the book and its author deserve to stand on their own merits. At the age of 28, Linda Gray Sexton has already served her apprenticeship by editing three volumes of her mother's poetry; by compiling, with Lois Ames, the moving and often chilling "Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters"; and by writing a nonfiction book, "Between Two Worlds: Young Women in Crisis."
With "Rituals," Linda Gray Sexton has established a voice and a name of her own. Her haunting tale of grief and family loss will especially affect any daughter who has mourned deeply.