Midway through Blair T. Birmelin's new novel, her second, the spinster Elsie Marie Duvenek is reading aloud from "The Robe," a book she has read before, for the enjoyment of Mrs. A.J. O'Connell, a neighbor who has temporarily taken her in following her sister's death. When Miss Duvenek suggests reading another chapter, Mrs. O'Connell begs off:
" 'Maybe tomorrow, dear. I'm not much in the mood for reading right now.' She struggled to speak patiently but couldn't quite conceal that at the moment her thoughts were elsewhere. 'Oh, you mustn't think,' she added hurriedly, 'that I'm not enjoying the book, and you read it so nicely, too -- ' She glanced down at the bent head, the face turned stiffly away as if under the force of a blow. 'Very nicely, with such expression, and I am really looking forward to' -- she went on, breathless with the effort to inflate the other's collapse -- 'the next chapter. Is it exciting? I bet it is.'
" 'Somewhat,' the other said.
" 'Well, perhaps you could tell me a bit about it. Give me a little bit about it. Give me a little preview.'
" 'That would be useless. It does not exist save in the reading. It is all fiction, Mrs. O'Connell.' "
And so it is with "The Dead Woman's Sister," a strange and subtle work of fiction, and one for which a "little preview" of plot would indeed be useless, for it could not convey the depth of experience captured here. In broadest paraphrase, this is the story of a totally dependent woman gaining a measure of independence; Elsie Marie Duvenek has lived her entire adult life with her dominant younger sister, Evelyn, and when Evelyn dies she must learn the fundamentals -- both practical and psychological -- of living.
She does so with the help of four other women, each of whom is grappling in her own way with the issues of independence, affiliation and identity. There is the charitable but somewhat pathetic Mrs. O'Connell, who takes Miss Duvenek in but is in ways more needy than she; Mrs. O'Connell's self-centered daughter Francine, who gives Miss Duvenek a crude shove toward independence; the expansive Lucille Moss, a social worker who instructs her ward directly in the fundamentals of living; and the brusque and exploitive Hattie Dunn, whose own bondage takes a different form.
Through her involvements with these four, Elsie Marie Duvenek changes from merely some dead woman's sister into a resourceful woman of her own -- one capable finally of a rather startling symbolic act that rids her of her sister's legacy. But one must witness this metamorphosis firsthand to appreciate it; simple summary misses all the psychological nuances that Birmelin spies in the issues of independence and bonding.
Everything is a matter of perspective here; perspective is constantly shifting. Is Mrs. O'Connell helpful, as she thinks, or is she overbearing and manipulative? Is Miss Duvenek really mentally ill, as once diagnosed? Did her sister really care for her with devotion all those years, or is there truth to that macabre tale of human bondage? If such questions are not neatly answered by Birmelin, they are posed so skillfully that the reader is forced to contemplate the intricacies of human relationships, which form the stuff of this accomplished novel.
A little preview also fails to capture the rich texture of this book. Birmelin's universe is the Upper West Side of Manhattan; more specifically, apartment interiors there. The author has clearly looked at them with a decorator's eye for detail, and she uses her remarkable descriptive powers to render a world that is vivid, if somewhat worse for wear. This is the world these women inhabit, and indeed the messages of their lives cannot be extracted for analysis from Birmelin's thick, descriptive prose; they do not exist save in the reading.