STOLEN GOODS By Susan Dworkin New Market Press. 265 pp. $16.95
Anna Karavajian never intended to be a career woman. At age 22 she was engaged to be married. She had picked out her silver pattern and mailed her invitations. The bridegroom, an Armenian like herself, was warmly endorsed by her parents and her two older, married sisters. She looked forward to a safe, sheltered life with her husband. Then, only days before the wedding, her fiance' was killed in a traffic accident, and Anna's life went careening off track too.
Thus begins "Stolen Goods," Susan Dworkin's first novel. And thus it ends, sort of, since the novel's unfortunate flaw is that everything in it that goes 'round comes 'round -- and then it all goes and comes 'round again. The plot spins in a tight, closed orbit, and almost no one, not even the dear departed fiance', is ever allowed to escape completely. These highly improbable coincidences undermine Dworkin's polished writing and creditable characterizations. The sequences of action work fine when examined independently. But Dworkin keeps forcing them all to link together, and the plot winds up looking like one of those connect-the-dots pictures, which is to say it doesn't look very much like anything.
It's better to think of this first novel as a smorgasbord of interesting women characters, with Anna as the centerpiece, to think of the plot's weaknesses in terms of the women's weaknesses. After all, don't women, to their own undoing, tend to believe that their own horizons are limited, that their universe is closed, that they can't succeed, so they therefore won't try? Anna certainly brings trouble to her life when she attempts to step outside the circle that is so tightly drawn for her. Widowed even before she is married, she wallows in her grief and worries her family, who know exactly the solution to Anna's misery: She should meet another man and marry him. But Anna is so stricken by her sadness that she can only slog through life, until at last in her thirties, in some sudden burst of strength, she turns to her father and his small printing business, jumps orbit and lands in the world of work.
What's interesting about Anna as a New York working woman is that she's not an MBA wearing pastel colors, eating lean chicken at expense account lunches and working out with a personal trainer every morning. She's sort of a shlump in sensible shoes who has trouble keeping printer's ink off her face. But she's the perfect uncluttered example of a woman newly arrived in the world of men. She makes plenty of mistakes, both financial and ideological. And she slowly learns that she doesn't have to play the game by the men's rules. In time, she forges her own code of ethics and her own brand of success.
Going along with Anna on her very bumpy ride through life is an interesting and very au courant roster of women. Anna's oldest sister, Lucia, long married to an overbearing man, likes to switch chintzes in the living room or shop for designer clothes with her two daughters. The middle sister, Mary, is a former hippie, living in the house-in-the-country-that-needs-work, who now is married and having-trouble-getting-and-staying-pregnant. Sally is Anna's avant-garde friend, a set designer for a local theater who opens up to Anna the world of culture and the arts, a world where all the rules that Anna has diligently learned in her blue-collar trade have to be thrown out the window.
Dworkin tries to make this artsy world wild and eccentric, a marked contrast to the tight little sphere of conventional business. But the theater scene here echoes with a forced hilarity, a pallid humor. And again, that tortured plot tries to zigzag the two worlds together. "Stolen Goods," with a strong cast of characters, could certainly use more theatricality, but not of the deus ex machina variety, not of the predictable crises and the perfectly timed denouements. To its own undoing, "Stolen Goods" stands by and watches as the good are rewarded, the bad are punished, the meek inherit the earth and every dog has his day. Certainly someone in this cast should have been a shard, a fragment, a question mark or a mystery. Certainly, at least one of these characters could have gone 'round once, and never come 'round again.
The reviewer is a senior editor for The Washington Post Magazine