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Book Review

Show of Courage in the Face of Life's Complications

TAKEN IN, by Beverly Coyle, Viking $24.95, 306 pages

September 11, 1998|SUSIE LINFIELD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Beverly Coyle's new novel, "Taken In," is light, comic and entertaining, although its subject is violent death, grief and loss. This may seem absurd, but "Taken In" is actually wise and delicate. There is much in this wonderfully offbeat book to ponder, but it is never ponderous, and it leaves the reader feeling mysteriously enchanted.

Susan and Malcolm Robb have been married a long time, and they--alone among their friends--have a true marriage, "the real stuff of love." Malcolm is sincere, loyal, plodding and just a bit self-righteous; by the novel's end, grief has introduced him to both fury and awe. Susan is blessed with two rare gifts: First, she is genuinely spontaneous--not reckless, exactly, but "extremely interested . . . in those found or absurd moments pulled free of their connection to rules and regulations." Second, she is "easy to love."

In addition to a happy marriage, Susan and Malcolm have two children. The elder, 17-year-old Matt, has--much to the astonished horror of his liberal baby-boomer parents--become a fervent religious fundamentalist. (Taking Christ at his word, Matt has given away most of his clothes, "the loaves and fishes of Lands' End outerwear.") Their daughter, Gretchen, is high-spirited, whiplash-smart and intuitive beyond her years, "15 going on 20."

Through a quick, bizarre and complicated series of events--so quick, bizarre and complicated that the characters themselves are not exactly sure what has happened--the Robbs' lives, which have been pretty good, are destroyed. Matt encounters--and then tries to help--a teenage prostitute named Angela Bert, a throwaway girl who "had been eating from cartons her whole life" and whose "capacity for showing happiness she often withheld as is the wont of people needing more power." Then the Robbs' eccentric, emotionally stunted neighbor, Oren Abel--who secretly adores Susan and therefore heeds her admonition to "Be bold!"--intervenes too, offering Angela not just financial support, but his home and his belongings.

The result, at least in the short run, is that Angela's furious, strung-out pimp boyfriend--"one of those men who played the father and the jailer at the same time"--murders Susan, although it is almost certainly Malcolm who is his intended target. This leaves a number of stunned people who, previously, "had had very little thought of inhabiting the planet without Susan." Alas, though, they are very much alive, and "Taken In" gets truly interesting after Susan's death, when Malcolm, Gretchen, Angela and Oren resist recoiling from one another and instead create a new and somewhat crazy family, as if they were a "set of old cooking pans, scoured to a new surface" through pain.

It is a sign of Coyle's deft touch that we don't know how much we liked--or even knew--Susan until she dies; then we too miss her terribly. This is a mother who tells her daughter, "I love your every defect!" and means it, too, and who passes on the knowledge that it's "ridiculous to be scared of grief." Part of the horror of "Taken In," in fact, is the realization that Susan loved her daughter wisely enough to leave her.

And the real glory of this novel is Gretchen. Are there 15-year-olds so courageous, so funny, so capable of improvisation? Probably not, but somehow Gretchen never rings false. "To be with her was to be with someone getting it right, down to the subtlest feeling and gesture," Malcolm observes of his daughter, in sorrow-soaked wonder. Gretchen doesn't think of herself that way, but she does become intensely interested in certain things after Susan's death--important things like "how to glide, how to let go of the conventional sob, how to swim a dangerous shoreline" and how to "know what time one is in from moment to moment and to respond as fully as possible to being in it and no other."

The Robbs are smashed due to genuinely good motives--Matt's attempt to aid Angela, and Oren's desire, inspired by Susan's contagious passion, to transform his own wasted life. It is precisely these good intentions that make "Taken In" so wrenching. The bravery of the book, though, lies in Coyle's refusal to ever suggest that we should not help others or transform our own wasted lives, even if the results are unaccountably catastrophic. As Susan advises Oren with a laugh, just days before her death, "Step up there and swing. Whatever fate is pitching, just swing at it. . . . Absolutely!"

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