Laura Wexler

Reading Anita Shreve's novel The Pilot's Wife is like unraveling a thread. From the moment Kathryn Lyons answers the late-night knock at her door, she and the reader are set upon a course that eventually reveals that the life Kathryn thought was one way was really another.

Kathryn is married to Jack, a pilot on the Boston-London run. They have a 15-year old daughter, Mattie, and a charming old house in a small New England beach town. It's a normal-enough life. They have a normal-enough marriage: Kathryn and Jack were once passionately in love, and now, years later, they have grown comfortable and separate.

When Kathryn answers that late-night knock, she is told that Jack's plane exploded off the coast of Ireland. Adding to her horror are airline investigators, pilots union investigators, and TV crews all looking for Kathryn to reveal something about Jack that will lead them to the source of the explosion. Each day, it seems, the news generates new bits of information and rumors. Each day there is a new wrinkle in what might have been a simple, tragic story: Take a family of three and subtract one.

At first, Kathryn can't believe that the explosion was anything other than an accident. She knows Jack, after all, and she knows that he wasn't involved in any political causes. He enjoyed hockey and playing on his computer, and being with his wife and daughter. But, in the slow and horrible way that the truth often reveals itself, bits and pieces of Jack's life surface that don't fit with Kathryn's picture of him. Found in Jack's pants pocket is an envelope with an initial marked on it (not a "K"). There's a receipt for a silken bathrobe that never arrives at Kathryn's house. And Jack, she later learns, did not spend his last night at the crew apartment in London.

The novel is essentially a mystery, with Kathryn playing the unwilling sleuth who must follow her husband's trail backwards all the way to Ireland. When she hires a boatman to take her to the crash site, Kathryn circles the wreckage and says, "To be relieved of love . . . was to give up a terrible burden." Because Kathryn is so distraught and grief-stricken, she doesn't add up the clues as fast as the reader, making the book a little slow at times. However, when Kathryn essentially solves the mystery of Jack, she realizes that she never knew him, and she never will. Her search leads her not only to some answers, but to a realization that the possibility is slim of ever fully knowing those we love, even those we love the most.

Reading Anita Shreve's novel The Pilot's Wife is like unraveling a thread. From the moment Kathryn Lyons answers the late-night knock at her door, she and the reader are set upon a course that eventually reveals that the life Kathryn thought was one way was really another. Kathryn is married to Jack, a pilot on the Boston-London […]

Mary Gordon's newest book, Spending, is a romance novel for smart people. It's erotic, funny, and provides all the pleasures of a good bodice-ripper with a key distinction: the female love interest is a fully realized character. She's got brains, depth, even angst.

The book begins in the way of every storybook romance. Boy meets girl, takes girl to the most expensive restaurant in town, then drives her back to his mansion, where he showers her with incredible luxury. But in this case the girl is Monica Szabo, a fifty-ish mother of twin daughters (one of whom has a black buzz cut and several body piercings). More important, Monica is a serious and successful, albeit financially struggling, painter. Her first thought upon waking in the bed of B. (she won't divulge his full name until the book's last lines) is that if she allows him to be her patron and Muse, as he offers, she'll betray both her art and her sense of herself. On the morning after her seduction, Monica is not thinking of marriage or the happily-ever-after. She's thinking of what she shares with every woman: "The potential to be called a whore."

That's what is so interesting about Gordon's novel. It's at once romantic and anti-romantic, with Gordon happily wreaking havoc on whatever romantic and artistic convention happens to raise Monica's ire at the moment. The novel has plenty of skimpy lingerie, last minute flights to Paris, dry white wine, and swimming naked in the ocean. But, there is just as much time devoted to Monica's struggles to reconcile the lifestyle B. offers with the one she's always known. Like every main character worth her salt, Monica's conflicted. She worries about mixing art with money and sex. She's suspicious of pleasure.

Too, she's constantly struggling to solve problems of form and craft, to reconcile her own work with the history of painting that precedes her. With B. as her inspiration and model, Monica creates a series based on the idea that the dead Christs portrayed in Renaissance paintings were not dead, just postorgasmic. The weakest part of the novel and it's weakness lies in seeming more orchestrated than the rest of the book occurs when the Religious Right pickets Monica's show, claiming she's disrespecting Christ, and forcing her to do the talk show circuit.

What emerges from Spending is not only the story of a love affair, but the story of an artist. It is that story that provides the depth and conflict not the circumstantial conflict of Hollywood and bodice-ripper romances, but the real, existential conflict experienced by thinking people that makes the book so engaging. Spending seems a lot like Monica's paintings, a lot like the best literary novels: the perfect combination of the cerebral and the sensual.

Reviewed by Laura Wexler.

Mary Gordon's newest book, Spending, is a romance novel for smart people. It's erotic, funny, and provides all the pleasures of a good bodice-ripper with a key distinction: the female love interest is a fully realized character. She's got brains, depth, even angst. The book begins in the way of every storybook romance. Boy meets […]

In her very first words in Josephine Hart's The Stillest Day, Bethesda Barnet states simply to her readers, to those who would judge her that for the first 30 years of her life she led a pious and steady life. Then one day she turned her back on piety, acting on some primeval urge that even 30 years of steadiness could not snuff out. The novel follows a path backward from this starting point. We learn that Bethesda Barnet is an art teacher in a small English town at the turn of the century who cares for her ailing mother, allows herself to be courted by a respectable man, and paints in her spare hours. She is a woman who knows the confines of her limited role in life and stays within them.

Then one day during a rain shower, Bethesda glimpses the school's newest teacher, Mathew Pearson. That one glimpse is enough to unmoor her. Obsessed, she paints Mathew's face upon mirrors and gazes into those mirrors so as to join her image with his. The arrival of Matthew's pregnant wife, Mary, does not quell Bethesda's passions; she simply hides her unhinging in more clever ways. Mary, cheerful and maternal her thoughts as transparent as Bethesda's are hidden strikes up a friendship with Bethesda's ailing mother. And it is during one of Mary's visits to the Barnet household that Bethesda commits the act that will alter her life forever. It's an act that's essentially merciful; yet in the eyes of the town, it infringes upon the powers reserved for God. How dare Bethesda Barnet a woman take the powers of life and death into her own frail hands?

Like Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, Bethesda will be scorned and feared the rest of her life for her actions. Unlike Hester Prynne, though, Bethesda's act leaves her free to be the woman she becomes, for better or for worse. Less and less a teacher and daughter, Bethesda becomes fully a painter, her canvasses evolving from still lifes of church and town to the surreal. In her love for Mathew, she grows fierce and hard. In short, Bethesda Barnet becomes a dangerous woman. So she is sent away to an island, where both she and the book turn haunting and strange.

The Stillest Day is a mysterious, challenging novel. On a theoretical level, it has plenty to say about women's issues. Purely on a visceral level, it's a moving story. Bethesda is one of the more interesting narrators to surface in a long while. As she says of herself on the book's first page: Nothing in my past could have prepared me for what it is that I became.

Laura Wexler is a reviewer in Athens, Georgia.

In her very first words in Josephine Hart's The Stillest Day, Bethesda Barnet states simply to her readers, to those who would judge her that for the first 30 years of her life she led a pious and steady life. Then one day she turned her back on piety, acting on some primeval urge that […]

In a talk Edwidge Danticat gave in January 1998, she commented, "It's often thought that poor people have no interior lives, and later, I always tell people to fill in the silence that bothers them." Thus, it's fitting that Danticat's newest novel, The Farming of Bones, set in 1937 during a bloody border uprising between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, begins inside the dreams of Amabelle Desir, and returns there many times.

The dream sequences are not stylistic accoutrements—they are Amabelle's remembrances of her mother and father's drowning in the river that makes up the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. For Amabelle, dreams are stories a person can create and hold onto in a time when they can create and hold onto nothing else. "You may be surprised what we use our dreams to do, how we drape them over our sight and carry them like amulets to protect us from evil spells," she says. That is why she continues to dream despite her grief and loss—her parents' death is the only story that is completely hers, and she wants to remember it.

Soon, however, Amabelle gathers even more losses. In a moment, or an evening at least, the cane-growing community where she has lived and worked since a Dominican family rescued her from the riverbank, transforms. Suddenly, armed Dominican soldiers are forcing the Haitian caneworkers onto trucks, along with Amabelle's lover and soon-to-be husband. She knows it is likely that he has been killed, but on the slim hope that he was taken to the border, she begins a journey through the woods and mountains to find him. Along the way she and her traveling partner are attacked, their mouths stuffed with parsley—for something as slight as a person's pronunciation of the Spanish word for parsley is enough to divide native from alien, European from African, insider from outsider. Such divisions are at the heart of the book.

The Farming of Bones is profoundly sad and beautiful. More than anything, it's an exploration of grief, of how loss can become the defining motif of people's lives. It is an investigation of the idea of borders, of how a particular river can divide one country from another, and the living from the dead. Amabelle is kin to that dividing river. She exists as the river does, in a half-life between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, between life and death. And Danticat tells us something history should have already taught us: at borders, there are only stories of loss.

Laura Wexler is a freelance writer in Athens, Georgia.

In a talk Edwidge Danticat gave in January 1998, she commented, "It's often thought that poor people have no interior lives, and later, I always tell people to fill in the silence that bothers them." Thus, it's fitting that Danticat's newest novel, The Farming of Bones, set in 1937 during a bloody border uprising between […]

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