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Book Review / Fiction

From Discord, a Wife Makes a Nice New Life--Too Nice

BLACK AND BLUE by Anna Quindlen, Random House, $23, 294 pages

March 04, 1998|SUSIE LINFIELD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In her column "Public and Private," which ran in the New York Times for five years and won a Pulitzer Prize, Anna Quindlen exemplified the essence of a very nice feminist. She consistently took positions that were reasonable and fair, arguing in favor of justice and equality. But hers was a feminism that was essentially safe--for cozy suburbanites, for corporate profits, for life as we know it. She wanted to tinker with the world, not transform it.

In her new novel, Quindlen takes on a subject that is anything but nice: domestic violence. This is the story of Fran Benedetto, a working-class woman from Brooklyn who, after years of being beaten bloody by her husband, Bobby, takes off with her beloved 10-year-old son, Robert, in tow. With the help of an underground railroad for battered women, she flees to Lake Plata, Fla., a place where there is "no town, really, just a collection of strangers ranged around a commercial strip." There, under an assumed name and with a new identity, she attempts to forge a new life.

Quindlen's telling of this tale is expertly paced and frequently gripping. Still, there is something too pat, too glib, too predictable, too, well, nice about "Black and Blue." It is hard to think of a writer whose sensibility is less suited to her subject.

In Fran, Quindlen has created a character who is perceptive, decent and consistently sympathetic. Maybe too much so: While Fran is allowed a dollop of anger, even rage, we never fully believe that this is a woman who has been vilely degraded, a woman whose body has been smashed and whose soul has been betrayed. Quindlen seems afraid to present us with a battered woman whom we might not like at every turn. And Fran's frequent insistence on her own mediocrity--"All I'd ever wanted was to be an ordinary woman"--becomes annoying.

Not surprisingly, everyone Fran meets in Florida is awfully nice. There's her new best friend, Cindy Roerbacker, who cheerfully dispenses advice on makeup and romance. There's Mike Riordan, who falls in love with Fran; he coaches the soccer team and adores kids. There's old Mrs. Levitt, cranky but kind, who's placidly philosophic despite the concentration-camp numbers tattooed on her arm: "Ah, what are you going to do?" she asks. What, indeed? Apparently, when bad things happen to good people, the good people remain essentially unchanged.

This may be a comforting worldview, but it's false and extraordinarily uninteresting too; even worse, it can, in a perverse way, become a defense of evil. (If evil doesn't fundamentally damage people, why is it really so bad?) And perhaps Quindlen does not fully believe in her own paradigm either, for she departs from it, crucially, in her depiction of Fran's son. Not surprisingly, he emerges as the most affecting character in the novel.

Unlike his father, Robert is not angry or violent. On the contrary, he's a good boy--too good, with that discipline, that spooky self-possession and that aversion to spontaneous feeling that children raised in troubled homes often have. He's a lovable kid, but cautious and tepid too, a kid who has learned to shield himself from the truth of his own feelings.

Ultimately, Fran abandons Bobby to save Robert; she fears not that Robert will grow up to be a violent man, but that he will become a blank one. And she sees that this is, in its own way, a terrifying fate: "My little boy, who had always had something of the little old man about him, was becoming a dead man, too, with a dead man's eyes," she observes.

After Fran has left Bobby, she remembers that "I've Got You Under My Skin" had been their wedding song. "Black and Blue" is admirable in many ways, and engaging too. But its characters never fully come alive; it glides on the surface; it evaporates too quickly; it never really gets under your skin.

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