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Bargains of a Family's Survival : COMPLICITY by Elizabeth Cooke (Little, Brown: $16.95; 272 pp.)

February 07, 1988|Susan J. Heeger | Heeger is a regular free-lance contributor to the San Fernando Valley edition of View. and

One kind word, one smile. That's all Amanda wanted from her father. Instead, he doted on her daughter, Maggie, dooming the girl to Amanda's hatred. Poor Maggie, in turn, mysteriously dotes on her mother, swallowing Amanda's lies about the past and submitting to her endless bullying.

So misery is passed from generation to generation in Elizabeth Cooke's first novel, "Complicity." So too is an individual's bargain with the family group presented as a matter of survival. Where Cooke goes wrong with her rich--if familiar--theme, is in her failure to grasp that between reader and writer, complicity is a far more voluntary proposition.

The novel opens compellingly, with a deathbed confession. After 58 years of silence, Eleanor Elliott finally explains her late husband's coldness to their Amanda: "I told him he was not to touch you, not to speak to you, ever."

Behind this astonishing command lies a dark secret only hinted at ("He didn't even know I was carrying you. . . . You were five months old when he came home"). But the scene sets the tone for the entire book--heavy foreboding. The implication is that after Eleanor's death--with only two family members living--all the dirty little family secrets will explode.

Indeed, as soon as possible, Amanda bolts off on a sort of truth mission to her father's grave near the family summerhouse in Maine. Maggie, the other survivor, insists on going along, raising the probability that mother and grown daughter will at last square off and come to new terms or die trying.

We are disappointed on two counts. First, Cooke's narrative method subverts present drama by sandbagging the novel in the past. The two women exist almost wholly on memories--so much so that they can't talk or eat or take a walk without dreaming of other talks, other meals, other moments more fully developed than the ones present.

The second problem lies with the characters themselves. Amanda is an utter harridan, with superhuman reserves of cruelty. If she isn't scorning Maggie's plain looks, she's repeating her daughter's comments as if awe-struck by their stupidity. Maggie rolls over and takes it. Wallowing in self-pity, she never challenges the blows dealt her, or the lies told her, until truth smacks her on the head.

It's hard to root for these people, let alone expect them to change. They're too devoted to a clannish misery unleavened by humor and overloaded with symbols--mangled loons, fire-charred animals, etc.

The novel's forward momentum is further hobbled by Cooke's language. Given to wordiness ("Maggie's arm rises and she waves a hand"), Cooke is also jarringly inexact in her descriptions ("His blue eyes folded in on themselves," "The lake's rounded bulging surface was black as a moonstone").

As the book winds down, the waters get muddier, with statements like, "She finally knew the truth," coming out of nowhere.

By this time, however, the reader will be long gone, all patience and complicity exhausted by the wait for drama, humor, wisdom and the feel for life deeply lived that good writing delivers.

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