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Divorce and its imperfections

A Perfect Divorce A Novel Avery Corman St. Martin's Press: 280 pp., $24.95

September 13, 2004|Merle Rubin | Special to The Times

Some people may dream of a perfect marriage, but who actually expects a marriage to be that way? Yet many a reasonably good marriage has ended in divorce, simply because both parties came to feel the partnership was not measuring up to their expectations. Such was the case for Karen and Rob Burrows, the no-longer-married couple in Avery Corman's novel "A Perfect Divorce." Being intelligent, sensible, well-meaning people (their politics are liberal; their business practices are honorable: Rob runs a company that makes high-quality playground equipment; Karen, a store that features folk handicrafts), they have managed to dissolve their union without undue acrimony. They've remained on good terms, always ready to cooperate when it comes to anything involving the well-being of their son, Tommy. Theirs, it seems, is "a perfect divorce."

Or is it?

The gist of this novel by the author of "Kramer vs. Kramer" is summed up in a passage about two-thirds of the way through it: "Karen and Rob attempted to rewrite a failed marriage with a successful divorce so their son could move gracefully and unharmed into his future. Neither of them were prepared to accept that his difficulties might have been begun the day they told him, 'We can't stay married. We tried.' "

As the story opens, Rob and Karen, who've been divorced for five or six years, are a little worried about Tommy, who's 17 and at the point of applying to colleges. He's a good kid, his parents agree, a wonderful kid, but his grades aren't the greatest and his SAT scores are even less impressive. Without giving away too much of the plot, suffice it to say that Tommy is accepted by the college of his choice. In his otherwise successful first term there, he is treated rather unfairly by the disciplinary committee for a small infraction.

Next thing his parents know, their son has dropped out of college and is living on his own, supporting himself, just barely, with a string of part-time jobs, disregarding parental urgings to continue his education and refusing parental offers of financial assistance. Now Rob and Karen are really panicked: They can't understand what's gotten into their boy. But what Corman shows us is the extent to which Tommy has been affected by the breakup of his family and by the strain of being shifted back and forth between their two households.

Another factor in Tommy's decision that Corman overlooks, however, is the extent to which this enthusiastic college freshman might feel betrayed by the very institution whose acceptance of him had meant so much.

As in "Kramer vs. Kramer," Corman has a relevant point: As Rob's best friend tries to tell him, "There aren't any no-risk divorces and you're living with the consequences." Not only has the divorce been harder on Tommy than his parents suspected, but, as Corman also makes clear, the same problems that led them to split up -- the territorial disagreements about who should be at home with the kid -- were not resolved by a two-career, two-household divorce. But although we're shown many reasons why it might be a good idea for the Burrowses to reunite, to their way of thinking, "going back" is out of the question.

There are at least three big problems besetting this well-intentioned, socially observant novel. The most obvious and insuperable is that it is very badly written. Leaden sentence follows leaden sentence in a style repetitive and monotonous enough to render the unwary reader well-nigh comatose. (Corman seems incapable of introducing a character without giving us his or her height in feet and inches.) Which brings us to the novel's second weakness: It is full of filler. The story of Tommy and his parents is all but lost in a virtual avalanche of uninteresting, irrelevant, neurotically picayune information about almost every conceivable aspect of the lives and lifestyles of these upper-middle-class New Yorkers.

Finally, a more subtle problem for a novel that sets out to challenge unthinking assumptions is that it happens to be full of such assumptions itself. Corman seems to find no irony in the fact that the Burrowses are staunch Democrats who always use the politically correct term "African American" but who make sure to send their son to a private school.

The Burrowses, and everyone else in the novel, also assume that no child can get anywhere without special coaching, tutoring or other tricks but they are convinced, nonetheless, that their son is "special." When the man whom Karen is dating dares to doubt this, she drops him. Luckily, Tommy does turn out to be "special." In the self-regarding, self-involved milieu of this novel, no one is permitted to be anything less.

*

Merle Rubin is a contributing writer to Book Review.

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