When modern fiction created the antihero, it also created its own dilemma: How does a reader involve himself with a character who is alienated? In "Finders Keepers," Lucienne Bloch portrays Jiffie Berglund, a well-educated, wealthy woman moving inexorably toward an emotional breakdown, who kidnaps her daughter and draws her cousin Nina into a suspenseful chase for them across the United States. This novel is a moving study of the erosion of Jiffie's brittle personality, Nina's struggle to overcome two losses, and the compelling and difficult connection between these two cousins bound by the intense experiences of their childhoods.
The daughters of close and self-contained twins, Jiffie and Nina are only two months apart in age and bear an uncanny resemblance to each other. They grow up almost as twins themselves, encouraged by this apparent similarity and their mothers' wishes. Still, Nina is somewhat in Jiffie's shadow, self-conscious and less lively, until an imperceptible change takes place in late adolescence. As the years progress, Nina grows more confident and directed, and the self-destructive tendencies in Jiffie's character emerge.
There are signs from the beginning that Jiffie has no purpose, no center, and that she cannot connect with other people, except, perhaps, Nina. In her marriage, "Jiffie's body was a wall with no door in it, a smooth white wall through which she could not pass to Tim because she did not love him." Her love affairs are "horizontal afternoons with no implications." There is a compulsive, desperate quality in the way she passes time, buying expensive clothes she soon discards, moving from one glamorous resort to another after she divorces Tim. When her mother dies, the negative space begins to dominate Jiffie. Images of emptiness and barrenness surround her. She is obsessed by the desert: "Jiffie had recognized what it was she saw in the flat looking-glass landscape: herself, shifty and ungiving as the sand, uninhabitable, eroded like the rebellious outcroppings of rock . . ."
The theme of barrenness also occupies Nina. An abortion results in infertility, a fact she mourns by emotionally distancing herself from men. She closes herself to other people as a defense, until she falls in love with Saul, a sudden event that capsizes her caution. The other breach in her well-ordered life is Meggie, Jiffie's daughter, whom she mothers better than Jiffie is able to do. Although Nina demonstrates strong feelings for Saul and Meggie, however, they are not fully developed in the story. We accept her love for them and see its effects on her without entering deeply into the relationships.
What real warmth there is in the novel lies between Nina and Jiffie. Their relationship embodies some of the qualities one looks for in human connections: love, concern, understanding--if not approval, anger and endurance. Although Nina and Jiffie perceive their adult selves as different, there are resemblances in essence if not style. Both have trouble reaching out to others, and Bloch shows their complementary responses; while Jiffie is overwhelmed by it, Nina finds a way to survive.
Bloch builds her novel on these differences and similarities, and on the themes of barrenness, the ability to make connections, and the journey. Everything is multi-layered; the physical events and landscapes have counterparts in the feelings of the characters. The writing is intelligent, penetrating and highly metaphorical. At her best, Bloch captures character and setting with a few well-chosen comparisons and details. For example, she shows the world of Jiffie's marriage through the eyes of Nina, an expert on Northwest Coast Indians:
"At Jiffie and Tim's parties . . . she always felt she was right in the thick of a latter-day potlatch ceremony. Hierarchic and spectacular displays of prestige filled those rooms like so much gas in a blimp . . . Those old Tlingit never knew beans about asserting rank, not in comparison with Jiffie and Tim's synonymous guests with their East Side addresses and their summer places and their swell collectibles . . . It was a thing you could just about touch, their self-satisfaction."
The difficulty with "Finders Keepers" is one raised by the nature of the characters and not by any failure in the writing. Jiffie's thoughts and actions are the most dramatic, and tend to dominate the book. How can the reader connect to someone like her, who is privileged, manipulative and disturbed, and who cannot make connections herself? Emptiness is elusive, and Jiffie is hard to see in positive terms. We know less about what she is than what she is not: not busy, not happy, not loving, not in control.
Her journey, always moving just beyond reach, is symbolic of the workings of her mind. The confused, compulsive movement, the avoidance and manipulation become her substance; standing still, there is nothing there. Yet one remains interested in her because Bloch so thoroughly and minutely explores the qualities of negative space. And as shadows draw attention to brightness, or abnormalities help define what is normal, Jiffie's nature tells something of the value of love and the ability to care for other people and find a purpose in oneself.