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Pain, Upheaval of Divorce Put Child, Adult Worlds at Odds

THIS IS MY DAUGHTER, by Roxana Robinson, Random House, $25, 404 pages


It may be sexist to speak of "women's magazine fiction," but surely such a genre exists; it is characterized by a sentimental, and obsessive, concentration on the Holy Grails of romantic love, marriage and motherhood. In its updated, more sophisticated version, adultery and divorce are allowed to infect the story line, although true love--and the family, albeit in mutant form--invariably triumph. Most important, such stories always fulfill the dual functions of providing readers with a Schadenfreude-like sense of superiority and a therapeutic sense of uplift.

Roxana Robinson's "This Is My Daughter" is an almost perfect example of this genre. In telling the story of a second marriage, it appears to confront boldly the dilemmas of the modern, fragmented, reconstituted family, and to deal with the conflicting demands of romantic love and parenthood. Yet its adult characters are just a bit too pat, its author's viewpoint a bit too simplistic and its plot a bit too melodramatic; it is not long, therefore, before we suspect that we are back in familiar territory indeed.

Emma Goodwin and Peter Chatfield are upper-middle-class New Yorkers who are both in their 30s and in bad marriages. Emma's better half is despicable Warren, who likes to remind her, "Your husband is a hot ticket." Peter is married to Caroline, a social-climbing, TV-watching, junk-food-eating airhead. Emma is smart and sensitive and works as an editor at an art magazine; Peter is a sexy, successful, "amazingly wonderful looking" lawyer who loves Mozart and Thomas Mann. Of course Emma and Peter prefer each other to their partners; who wouldn't? Yet it is precisely in the depiction of the betrayed first spouses that Robinson begins to reveal her lack of confidence in her readers: She does not, apparently, trust that we could be on the side of her protagonists had they abandoned good, decent, intelligent people. Emma and Peter earn their divorces--and, presumably, our

goodwill--by being married to jerks.


Neither Peter nor Emma is particularly scintillating. Where Robinson does shine, though, is in her portrayal of children--and especially in her understanding of their ultimate, infuriating powerlessness.

In one scene, Emma smacks her 3-year-old daughter, Tess, and then, far more horrifyingly, offers solace: "Tess' . . . body [was] limp and unresisting. She had no choice but to be comforted by her enemy. It was the final humiliation. Her mother was her captor, her tormentor, her judge, her punisher and her last refuge."

With almost perfect pitch, Robinson captures the clash of world views between adults (with their responsibility to exercise choice in human relationships) and young children (with their insistent belief that all such relationships are natural, fixed, immutable). When Peter tells his 7-year-old daughter, Amanda, of his divorce, "She stared at him. . . . What her father said meant nothing. . . . You didn't make someone happy or not happy, you just lived your life. . . . The people in your life were your people. You didn't decide about them, they were there."

The crux of Robinson's book is the emotional havoc divorce wreaks on Amanda, and Robinson is adept at depicting the girl's sullenness, her rage, her cruelty, her clarity and the way that grief itself can become a mode of both authentic existence and escape: "What she felt was sadness, and she let herself at last sink slowly into it. It was a relief. . . . Now she could let go, and descend into this deep space she yearned for, this place where she knew she belonged."

Still, there is something too schematized, too neat, about Robinson's paradigm. A small detail kept haunting this reader. At the novel's start, we meet a very young Amanda. Her parents are still married. Yet Amanda is already "sulky and belligerent," "mute" and "motionless"; she is already fiercely miserable. How, then, are we to believe that there was any Eden from which her parents' divorce could so brutally expel her--a belief upon which this entire novel hinges?

While "This Is My Daughter" delineates life among privileged WASPs, it exhibits absolutely none of the skepticism, not to mention irony, that Tom Wolfe brought to "The Bonfire of the Vanities." Indeed, this novel is peppered with inadvertently hilarious lines such as, "It had been at Harvard where Peter discovered how truly poor he was." What a rude awakening!

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