Rosemary's family is driving her crazy

June 21, 1993|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

Rosemary's lover of eight years, William, has committed suicide while on a trip abroad. So Rosemary, a sensible high school teacher who lives in far north Maine, retreats to her isolated house, refusing all company and condolences. This is the set-up for Cathie Pelletier's "The Bubble Reputation," a comedy about the O'Neal family of Bixley, Maine.

Yes, a comedy. Like Lee Smith's "Family Linen," which starts with a character's sudden memory of a gruesome murder, "The Bubble Reputation" is set in motion by grim circumstances. By the rules of this genre, Rosemary must deal with her grief and eccentric relatives, all obsessed with old feuds and grievances.

So Uncle Bishop and sister Miriam arrive on her doorstep, loaded down with casseroles and idiosyncrasies. (The much-married Miriam always wears green, having been told it's her best color; Uncle Bishop, famous for his bad taste in boyfriends, decorates elaborate dollhouses.) Rosemary's old college roommate, Liz, also comes to stay, followed by a husband and a lover, although not in that order. Finally, there's Rosemary's mother, the happiest of the lot. She's also thoroughly crazy since a conk on the head, which catapulted her into a private world of misfiring synapses.

Is it any wonder that Rosemary, once considered the sane one, moves to a tent in her backyard, using a BB gun to keep her guests away from her? Or that each guest sincerely believes it's someone else who is driving Rosemary crazy?

Billed as an antic adventure, "The Bubble Reputation" falls a bit flat when it strives for out-and-out hilarity. Uncle Bishop and Miriam are wearying with their determined zaniness, especially when liquor is involved. (I don't subscribe to the neo-Puritan sensibility that forbids us to laugh at drunk scenes. I just ask that they be funny.) Rosemary's retreat also is a bit anti-climactic -- I didn't realize I should appreciate her sanity, until she lost it.

The novel's quieter moments, however, provide real pleasure. In her grief and isolation, Rosemary is an uncanny observer of the Maine summer that is passing by her. She moves through Bixley on her bike, detached and dispassionate. Nothing is what it seems. Uncle Bishop's car grins demonically at her. A hang-glider reminds her of a pterodactyl. She drinks wine with Aunt Rachel, the other sane relative, but one with an important secret. In a particularly moving passage, she studies her infantile mother, watching her tend to a Cabbage Patch doll.

Mother grabbed for Baby Kathleen. Except for the braids, the doll looked startingly like Andy Rooney. As Rosemary watched, Mother undressed it and then changed its diaper. It unnerved Rosemary to see this. How many times had Mother performed this self-same task on her? Or Miriam and Robbie? Somewhere in her mind, was Mother raising her family all over again? . . . Mother was putting her sleeping baby on the couch. She covered it, now her only child, with the same pastel blanket and then, as mysteriously as it appeared, the mother concern was gone.

"The Bubble Reputation" has the feel of an earlier work retooled by a more confident writer. In fact, Ms. Pelletier notes that it was her second novel, which may explain some anachronistic bits of pop culture -- references to the "The Incredible Shrinking Woman," and the 1984 pairing of Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro -- although the story is set sometime during George Bush's presidency.

But it follows the unwritten rules of such family comedies. Rosemary's grief travels the arc from mourning to anger; she tracks down her pterodactyl, with pleasantly unexpected results. And the family is brought together again, gathered at the Thanksgiving table. As Miriam dozes drunkenly on the sofa, Uncle Bishop comments: "With her penchant for men and for green, she might turn up one day with a leprechaun."

The last word belongs, however, to Rosemary. It's a common expletive, but the perfect word to bring her back to the world again.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Bubble Reputation"

Author: Cathie Pelletier

Publisher: Crown

Length, price: 290 pages, $21

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