By Avery Corman
Simon and Schuster. 320 pp. $19.95
In Avery Corman's new novel, "Prized Possessions," Ben and Laura Mason are upper middle-class Manhattanites whose life seems picture-perfect. They have two children, Elizabeth and Josh, who attend the "right" schools; they have a beautiful apartment, successful careers, a country house, a dog. In fact, the Masons have everything. Their prized possessions include the folk art that Ben collects and sells and the magazine Laura started on her own.
But perhaps their most prized possession is their daughter. "Elizabeth, their firstborn, represented their dreams of moving up, of not being kids from Brooklyn and the Bronx any longer. And she had fulfilled their expectations." Corman chronicles the family's life with spare but graceful language. The sometimes flat descriptions he chooses remind us that the Masons could be anybody, even us. And by the time Elizabeth leaves to study music at prestigious Layton College, everything is in place for disaster.
The disaster that befalls her is rape. It occurs on her first weekend at college. A pretty freshman, eager to make friends, Elizabeth is asked out by an upperclassman, one of the school's tennis stars, Jimmy Andrews. Handsome and charming, Jimmy is a high school acquaintance of Elizabeth's new roommate, which makes him seem even safer. The couple goes out to eat and then to a party at the off-campus house where Jimmy lives with other young men. The house is called "The Big Leagues," and comes complete with a soundproof basement room where the residents take their dates to "score."
Elizabeth drinks two beers and kisses Jimmy while they dance. She then agrees to go downstairs with him to listen to music. But Jimmy has other plans. He becomes sexually aggressive and when Elizabeth refuses his advances, even shouting "No!" several times, he forces intercourse with her and nearly chokes her in the process. With that single act, "Elizabeth's hopes for Layton -- to be in musicals, write for the newspaper, run cross country, play volleyball -- all vanished."
She runs back to the dorm, vomits on the way there and ultimately douches, showers and destroys all of the clothes she wore that night. She also, out of shame, chooses not to tell anyone about what's happened. Elizabeth becomes withdrawn, drops out of her singing class and starts to have terrible nightmares until an on-campus rape program forces her to confront what happened to her that first weekend.
Corman not only shows us how the rape destroys the once-happy Mason family, he also presents us with the other side, the Andrews family and how it is unhappy in its own way. Although Jimmy is portrayed as shallow and dishonest, to his credit Corman does show us other residents of "The Big Leagues" as moral and truthful. Some of the other college students do teeter on cliche, but more often than not these stereotypes only serve to create a world we can all recognize.
With broad, sure strokes, Corman gives a complete portrait of the horrors that everyone endures seeking justice and healing from the events of one night. When Elizabeth's attorney uncle tells her "You're the same sweet, lovely girl," it only reinforces what is really true, that no one involved will ever be the same again. Elizabeth Mason's rape violates not only her, but her family, the innocence of her friends and, in essence, all of us who read this horrifying and true-to-life account.
Frank Teller, the college counsel who sits in on a disciplinary board hearing against Jimmy Andrews, says, "Who says life is fair?" And ultimately that is what all of the characters in "Prized Possession" learn. You can do all the right things for your children, but you cannot protect them from the unfairnesses in life.
Through the Mason family, Avery Corman skillfully examines our values and our legal system, while bringing to our attention a problem that exists on college campuses everywhere today. As Jean Philips, the Layton College counselor, says, "In America every six minutes a woman is raped. ... In a survey of college campuses, the number of date rapes was shockingly high. It's a national crisis, and it's our crisis." For readers of "Prized Possessions," it's a crisis that will linger and resonate for quite some time.
The reviewer's fourth novel, "Something Blue," has just been published.