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Making Hope a Big Deal : THE BEGINNER'S BOOK OF DREAMS by Elizabeth Benedict (Alfred A. Knopf: $18.95; 325 pp.)

April 24, 1988|RICHARD EDER

Elizabeth Benedict's second novel meanders between glittering rocks and marshland. At times, it runs clear and distinct, with the verve that this talented writer brings to the hops and short falls of her characters' feelings. Other times, it subsides into undifferentiated emotions that seem uncomfortably close to popular romance.

Esme, her heroine, is a chubby, buffeted child who tries to grow her way out of her parents' turbulent unreliability, finds that she shares part of it and begins, at the end, to try to control what she can of her life, accept what she can't and, as the saying has it, know the difference.

Her big and little anguishes touch and blur by turns. She is a maid of constant sorrow and self-preoccupation; she can also be a wry and captivating master of low-water navigation.

Esme is a heavier-than-air child held up by two lighter-than-air balloons that leak. She lives in various New York apartments with her mother, Georgia, and several of Georgia's husbands and men friends.

Georgia tried being a starlet once but found it easier to rely upon men of large promise or, more exactly, large promises. A knight in shining armor waits around each corner. Each time the knight falls, horse and all, Georgia is caught at the bottom of the tangle. Between knights, she survives on irregular alimony, modest jobs in posh department stores and a flood of alcohol.

Esme loves her mother as much as she can, prays that she will not fall upstairs when drunk, and survives. Overeating provides short-term hope; the long term rests with the thought of Meyer, her father and Georgia's first husband.

Meyer lives in various places--Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Houston--working on the next big deal. A big deal is his own collapsible knight in shining armor. Esme worships him and waits for him to send for her, as periodically promised. He never does; though at one point, he sends $200.

"The Beginner's Book of Dreams" is an Esme-trap, in other words; a trap she begins to figure her way out of, though only after repeatedly escaping and falling back in.

It is a high-quality trap, and the details are admirable. Esme breathes importunately beside us, disposing of one misery only to graduate to the next. Benedict knows exactly what it is to be a fat little girl in New York, wearing pink leotards so her thighs won't rub and perpetually trying to figure out the adult world and getting it wrong.

She knows the martini-swilling advertising world of the '50s and '60s, to which Quinn, one of the stepfathers, belongs. Quinn can make the precise social distinction between the Rainbow Room and the Rainbow Grill; he has tickets to everything; he is an alcoholic and a wife-beater, and he finally moves out of the picture after assaulting his boss at an office Christmas party.

She knows how to describe two New York divorcees celebrating New Year's with each other in an expensive apartment where there is barely enough money--because alimony is as unstable as their marriages were--to buy a celebratory bottle. She knows the hard and soft edges of stepsisters on holiday visits.

The context is perfect but, particularly at the start, it seems to be waiting for the characters to move in. More seriously, many of the characters seem constructed prior to being inhabited. In fact, with the exception of Esme, Meyer and Meyer's kind and sorrowful father, not a great deal of inhabiting takes place. The spectacular Georgia, for example, is more accurate than real.

We move through "The Beginner's Book" in a series of chapters that come in at successive stages of Esme's growing up. Benedict is artful at hiding major changes within imperceptible ones. Esme goes from fat and awkward, to fat and pretty, to less fat and prettier, to beautiful; while the awkwardness never really departs. Her distancing from her mother, and eventually from her father, is a matter of tree rings that form successively without obliterating the ones that are already there.

Men do poorly by her. Her father, temporarily turned hippie-businessman, comes to visit with his girlfriend and her two sons. Esme, now a teen-ager, hopes that one of them will teach her about sex. It is a brief, inglorious and demeaning episode.

When she meets Gene, a sophisticated high school senior, she hopes both for love and intellectual growth. They read, talk and go to museums, but the love collapses when he is accepted at Harvard.

There is more growth when she buys a camera and goes to Washington to study photography. A one-sided passion for a photography teacher follows--he kisses her and later apologizes--and she follows him to Mexico before recovering.

At the end, a visit to her father, aging and solitary, sets her on the way to recognize that her parents' instability lives in her too but--being recognized, as tenants, not landlords. She is free to grow up. It is a useful ending, though rather earnestly abstract.

Benedict has a genuine vision of Esme's painful journey. She is quite brilliant at suggesting a complicated mixture of feelings; one of the best and most subtle scenes in the book comes when Esme and Gene, advancing and retreating, seduce each other and promptly cool off.

But the author flags here and there, as if losing concentration. Esme's disappointments and betrayals can feel piled on and generic. Her would-be affair with her photography teacher loses any real interest because he is such a romantic cliche. Not only is he wise, witty, lean and saturnine, but he has black curly hair, a dimple and an appealingly crooked eye-tooth; and his name is Rory.

Where Benedict's heart is in Esme's struggles, her book is dry and moving in its restraint. Where the author's attention seems to stray, it goes soft and even sentimental.

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