By Margot Livesey
Henry Holt. 321 pp. $24
Zeke, an angelically beautiful, mentally impaired 29-year-old man, works in London as a house painter. His symptoms vary: Publicity material for Margot Livesey's new novel, "Banishing Verona," describes him as suffering from Asperger's syndrome, but sometimes he seems mildly autistic. (Also, he's had a nervous breakdown.) Zeke can't recognize familiar faces, he can't comprehend metaphor, he becomes afraid for no reason, and he can never, never, tell a lie. Naturally, he has great trouble understanding the ways of a deceptive, complex world.
So when Verona, a big, middle-aged, seven-months-pregnant woman, shows up at the house he's painting and announces that she is the occupants' niece, Zeke can only take her at her word. Verona stays for two nights, and on the fateful second night, they have sex. Then Verona vanishes, as mysteriously as she appeared. Of course she wasn't the occupants' niece at all.
Until now, Zeke's life has been taxing, unrewarding and sad. He lives alone in a tiny flat and is eternally hassled and tormented by his parents, who want, among other things, for him to take over the family greengrocer business. His mother is a self-centered shrew who has been having an affair, his father a disagreeable hypochondriac who has finally succeeded in giving himself a heart attack. Neither of them has the slightest flicker of affection for Zeke. Perhaps because of that, he fixates on Verona. Who is she, and where has she gone?
Verona has family problems, too. Her parents are dead, but she has a younger brother, Henry, a sociopathic thief who has stolen from one set of folks too many. Now some thugs are after him, and they plan to find him through his sister -- thus helping trigger Verona's impetuous flight to the house that the blameless Zeke has been refurbishing.
Verona is meant to be seen as endearingly flawed. Or maybe she's just flawed. On the magical evening they spend together, she burns the vegetables she's cooking and begins banging the saucepan against the stove, shrieking at the top of her voice, "full mouth stretched wide, her eyes glinting." (I wondered why the vegetables didn't pitch out all over the floor and why the phobic Zeke was relatively unscathed by this outburst, but oh well!) Verona has recently returned from a trip to Thailand. She's gotten pregnant from a sperm bank. She's carrying around a handwritten account of her grandfather's life, in which he warns her of Henry's perfidy. And before she vanishes, she inexplicably stops to hunt around for a hammer and then nail her clothes to the floor.
Something about "Vanishing Verona" reminded me of an old, quite marvelous children's novel, "The Saturdays." In that long-lost fictional world, four brothers and sisters, ages 13 to 6, pool their allowances so that each can go out on the town, alone in New York, and have adventures. All of them, in their own ways, are introduced to the wonders of a larger world. They learn that each human being has secrets and stories to tell -- a manicurist, a lonely old woman, a cop on horseback -- and each person they meet assumes almost magical properties. Life is a mystic journey! Keep your eyes open, and you'll learn a lot! Which is a wonderful theme for a kids' book, but a little syrupy as it manifests itself here.
Still hiding from thugs, Verona is forced to fly to Boston and thence to New York. After some days, she phones Zeke and asks him to come over and be with her. Terrified, he says yes. Flying, until now, has been totally out of the question for him. But then Verona stands him up. She leaves vague notes for him, or strangled little phone messages, or she doesn't call him at all for days -- all the while learning interesting things about Harvard Yard and Boston's art galleries. Oh, Verona doesn't know what she wants! She's an endearingly flawed human being!
Verona flies home to London. Zeke flies home to London. They've both met interesting people, had adventures, learned more about the wide world and gotten some perspective about their respective relatives. Zeke's parents are more human than he knew; Verona's brother a good deal less so. Back in London, it's Verona's turn to pursue, Zeke's to step back. He wants no more of her -- or so he thinks.
So goes the eternal gavotte of love! (Or so certain films and novels would have us believe.) But it was love at first sight for these two; they're soul mates for life. A second theme here would seem to be: No matter how tweaked you are, how long in the tooth, how pregnant, semi-crazy, emotionally unstable, burdened with bad genes and criminal relatives, even mentally retarded, true love is always out there, yours for the taking, if only you have the faith and personal courage.
I wish it were true, but it sounds suspiciously like a children's fairy tale to me, or a women's-magazine fantasy. I can almost believe in the extraordinarily articulate, exquisitely sensitive, mentally challenged Zeke, but Verona lost me on Page 14 when she pitched a fit about the vegetables. To hook up with her, you really would have to be nuts.