On almost any college campus, from Bennington to Oberlin to Stanford, one can see them: kohl-eyed, anorexic girls marching about in black turtlenecks, clutching slim volumes of verse. I should know; I was one of those people voted "most avant-garde," a.k.a. odd, by their high school classmates.
So, apparently, was Meg Wolitzer. In her first novel, "Sleepwalking," she examines the insular world of high-strung, over-enriched, self-conscious college students. One year out of Brown herself, Wolitzer casts a kindly but objective eye upon her occasionally histrionic peers and captures the very real unhappiness of growing up sensitive and misunderstood. But she manages to avoid the leaden seriousness of many young writers who tend to treat rites of passage as cataclysmic events.
Her novel tells the story of three Swarthmore freshmen known on campus as the "death girls." During orientation week they recognize one another as kindred souls who write poems about "swelling tears of rain" and "haiku about Vietnam." Each girl is obsessed with a different poet: Laura with Anne Sexton, Naomi with Sylvia Plath, and for Claire Danziger, it is Lucy Ascher, a fictional poet who drowned herself at 24. The first two play at their engrossment. Jewish Naomi bleaches her raven hair and Laura affects a "whiskey voice and decidedly suburban air" in honor of their respective idols. Young, pretentious and a little silly, they will outgrow this unhealthy identification with death, continuing however to admire the art of the two poets.
But Claire is different. Her morbid enthrallment with Laura Ascher wells up from her own submerged grief over the death from leukemia of her brother Seth, and her guilt for having outlived him. As Claire's family becomes the focus of "Sleepwalking" the book swiftly and smoothly changes tone. With strong, simple words, Wolitzer delineates the utter devastation Seth's death has wreaked on a very ordinary suburban family. With compassion, she describes Claire's parents, who, having buried their son, are left stiff, unwilling survivors. Their daughter's deliberately fanciful response to the medical jargon she hears subtly conveys her withdrawal from reality: "Basophil. Leukocyte. White count. Platelet. Claire's mother recited them on the telephone, and the words jumbled together made Claire giddy as she listened. Platelet: a tiny piece of dinnerware used at Lilliputian banquets, easily mistaken for a chink of green bottle glass on a beach." Woven into the plot is the parallel story of the Aschers, which echoes back the grief felt at the death of a child.
Most important, it is Wolitzer's language that fuels "Sleepwalking"; she has a gift for words and tone. The voices range from Naomi's collegiate whine, comically straining for literary allusions: "It's getting to be that time of year again--the heart of winter, when as you once said, 'the lemming inside me' takes over. I really do feel depressed these days. Life at Swarthmore is as grim as ever. None of my classes are worth my time, with the possible exception of modern dance" to Mrs. Danziger's raspy, hemorrhaging pain: "Bitter . . . You think I'm bitter? Wait until you turn 50; you'll see that there's nothing to tap-dance about."
Describing Seth dying of leukemia, Wolitzer writes, "You can be frightened of death, not of doom. It was easy to tell the difference: death does not have arms and legs as hairless and pale as a chihuahua, or fingernails bitten down to tiny smiles."
In the end, "Sleepwalking" transcends the confines of the usual coming-of-age novel because it grapples with authentic, unbearable pain. Wolitzer explores with wisdom the chasm between the death of young love and the death of a child. Claire's boyfriend, sweet, clog-scuffing Julian, suffers when she leaves him, but his grief is part of the natural order; young hearts are meant to be broken. The Danzigers and Aschers' anguish is different; they are old, but they have buried a child. From that wound, there is no true healing. Meg Wolitzer's novel captures this tragedy, and renders it with beauty.