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Book Review / Fiction

Bittersweet Memories at the End of a Life

EVENING, by Susan Minot Alfred A. Knopf $23, 264 pages

October 14, 1998|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

"Don't turn on the engine," mutters the dying woman in the bedroom of her elegant Cambridge house. "It's coming in from the south," she continues. And "a person is like a porpoise."

The phrases are tatters of a memory, the sole memory that haunts Ann Lord after 65 years of life, three husbands and four children. None of these things much count to a distracted mind in a pain-racked body. What counts is a wedding house party 40 years earlier, when Ann and a fellow guest plunged porpoise-like into and out of an instant love affair lasting no more than that single weekend.

At one point Ann and Harris Arden had gone sailing with some of the other guests. He and she had slipped overboard and swum, trailed by two porpoises. The wind died, and it was necessary to start the engine to get back in time to meet Harris' fiancee, due in by small plane. Ann's fevered muttering recalls the desperate wish not to have to return, and the fog "coming in from the south" that was to delay the fiancee's arrival and allow the two illicit lovers another night together.

"Evening" interweaves sinuously the dying present and the memories of the past. Ann's terminal cancer is an occupying garrison; it displaces her. Her voice, clear and hallucinatory by turns, is a voice gone underground and speaking from clandestinity. "She'd once had a life but was no longer in it," Ann reflects.

Page by page, Susan Minot deftly shifts focus back and forth among the old woman, her nurses, her grown children in their deathbed vigil and the wedding weekend on an island named Three O'Clock; a pseudonym, in fact, for North Haven, Maine, where some of the stories in Minot's first book, "Monkeys," also took place.

There are occasional glimpses of other parts of her life: her childhood as daughter of a Boston society seamstress, whose own early romantic elan was permanently chilled when the family of an upper-class beau disposed an end to their affair. There is her amiable lush of a father, reminiscent of the emotionally absent father in "Monkeys."

One of the finest scenes in "Evening" portrays Ed Grant, unsteadily home for dinner, teetering cautiously to his place and allowing his wife's account of her day to wash over him. He "nodded along with the hum of her voice, he looked up at her, a grateful cast to his eye, everything was being looked after and he went back to eating his stew."

Minot knows her drunks, almost--but fortunately never quite--to the point where to know all is to forgive all. She also knows her New England gentry.

The details of the Maine house party are wonderfully exact. The Witteborns, with their island compound, their sailboats, their patronizing informality, their aristocratic shabbiness--see them gathering for yet one more picnic in a wonderful collection of battered hats, bare feet and sunburnt noses tipped with white zinc ointment--possess an ease turned slightly brittle. Perhaps it is no more than the anxiety that capital may have to be dipped into. And Mr. Witteborn, of course, is another dignifiedly out-of-it lush.

Ann's arrival is nicely done after a Gatsby-like car progression that reviews the landscape from Boston to Maine. One of her fellow passengers is Harris, a handsome, attentive doctor from Chicago; and on the ride she is smitten. Minot, who can write exquisitely, details her state of transport by the time they reach the Witteborns' compound.

"They were packed in closely and Harris Arden's arm was pressed alongside Ann's. The world was perfect and tight and balanced and as they drove past the sheep on the tilted field it seemed that the trunk of each cedar tree was perfectly shaped and had been placed in precisely the place it belonged."

There are other accomplished passages: the chaotic bustle of the wedding morning, with the bride's mother frantic, the bridesmaids as disorderly as a flock of geese and the bride herself--perhaps the most interesting character in the book and the one we hear least about--a model of composure, standing beside her dress "draped like a sea monster" across a chaise.

Harris's and Ann's stolen moments together are conveyed with considerable erotic effect, though the one full-blown sex scene is so lyrically heated as to burn itself out. The sick-room passages, mixing hallucination with pain, the professionalism of the nurse with the groping uncertainties of the family, are coldly captivating.

"Evening" is Minot's best book since "Monkeys," her masterpiece. It has some central weaknesses, though. As a novel, it is intransitive. The fine and witty writing embroiders a static life and a central vacuousness.

Since it becomes evident that Harris will go back to his fiancee, Ann's passion cannot help but seem plain silly. "Seduced and betrayed" is a melancholy state, but in this day and age it tends to reflect on the victim as well. So, in a sense, does the deathbed itself, despite its skillful evocations. Overshadowing the substance of her life--three times married and mother of four interesting adults--Ann's long-ago weekend not only suggests that the life is irrelevant but that she is as well.

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