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Book Review

Tales of Women in Search of Equanimity

April 02, 2001|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

DRINKING WITH THE COOK

by Laura Furman

Winedale

$24, 272 pages

*

There are 13 stories--a baker's dozen--in Laura Furman's new collection, "Drinking With the Cook," and, although neither food nor drink could be said to be a central theme in her work, she knows how to use the details of domesticity to create a larger picture of life.

The narrator of the title story is a middle-age woman who has left her job in the city to move in with her boyfriend in the country. He brings her to meet his longtime friends, Randy and Geraldine, who've lived there for years and have taken to canning their own vegetables and shooting game for their own meat. Making friends with this couple is uphill work--and a possible portent of things. "Are you interested in canning?" the country wife asks her.

"No," I said. "I love fresh things. And you can get salt-free canned tomatoes already diced and peeled in the supermarket."

"But they're not your own."

"I don't feel possessive about tomatoes."

"Not a good summer for tomatoes," Geraldine said. "When you use up the jars in your pantry, that's all you'll get."

The author of two novels ("Tuxedo Park," "The Shadow Line"), two previous story collections ("The Glass House," "Watch Time Fly") and a memoir ("Ordinary Paradise"), Furman has been compared to Ann Beattie for her portraits of aging children adrift in a fog of anomie.

But unlike Beattie, whose deadpan tone suggests a coolly ironic detachment, Furman takes a more direct and, in many ways, riskier approach. Not only does she forgo the shield of irony that keeps a writer from seeming to identify too closely and uncritically with her characters, but she also risks the possibility that the reader may be bored by the quietness and neutrality of her tone. How seldom this happens is testimony to her achievement, her skill in conveying the peculiar fascination of the quotidian, and the emotions that lie just beneath its surface.

Many of the stories involve displaced women taking temporary shelter in the homes of couples. Divorced or single, between jobs or between relationships, they are drawn to the appearance (and perhaps the reality) of permanence like moths to a flame. The narrator of "Buddy," stunned by the dissolution of her 14-year relationship with a flighty folk singer, tries to warm herself at the hearth of her younger sister's stable married life.

In "What Would Buddha Do?" we see a similar situation from the perspective of the married woman, who has invited her unsettled younger sister for a visit, even though she and her husband are on the verge of moving to another state.

And in "Sunny," a 12-year-old city girl whose mother has recently died suffers a second painful loss when the friendly neighboring couple to whom she has become attached decide to leave Manhattan for the suburbs.

The longest story in the collection, "Hagalund," about an ex-girlfriend of a 1960s radical who finds herself in Sweden on the fringes of a small group of draft dodgers and resisters, is also the weakest. Neither the anemic narrator nor her colorless comrades-in-exile have the depth to sustain one's interest, though one has to admire the narrator's apt observation: "Both were dedicated to something they thought was larger than themselves while I was dedicated neither to myself nor to something larger."

It is this same narrator who poses a question that preoccupies so many of Furman's characters: "How do lives take shape so that you move from one stage to the next? How does a person make the first decision that in turn determines all the other decisions?"

But though many of Furman's characters find it difficult to stop drifting and start deciding, others, who've made the requisite life-shaping decisions, still do not get what they bargained for. Two stories about women who've just begun new relationships, "Drinking With the Cook" and "The Natural Memory," subtly and strongly convey the complex emotions that come with realizing that one's second chance at love may turn out no better, or perhaps even worse, than the first.

And then, there are blows that no one can evade or prepare for, like death. "Melville's House" poignantly depicts a seemingly normal day in the life of a man who's been told he is fatally ill. Here, as throughout the collection, Furman is unflinching in her portrayal of anxiety, fear and sadness, yet she exercises great emotional and artistic restraint. Little in her fiction is there for shock value: What we're left with instead is the more muted shock that comes with recognition of the real.

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