Middle age beomes a disappearing act

April 25, 1994|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff Writer

It's not magic, it's middle age.

Kiki Shaw is disappearing, bit by bit. Co-workers wander into her office to borrow something from her desk, not noticing that she's sitting right there. Even her cat walks right through her foot! What's happening is Kiki is turning 40, which -- if you're a woman in America -- means people start looking past you, talking over you, and otherwise making you feel invisible.

That is the running theme in "Now You See Her" (as in "now you don't"). All the female characters are fading out, metaphorically or otherwise: Kiki, who writes questions for a "Jeopardy"-like game show; her friends Nora and Collier; Les, the woman married to Collier's boyfriend; even Kiki's flamboyant mother, Gen.

tTC Author Whitney Otto's light, lyrical touch with the ebb and flow of her characters' lives will be familiar to those who made her first novel, "How To Make an American Quilt," one of those wonderful surprises that emerge out of the publishing world to commercial and critical success.

"Now You See Her" speaks in much the same simple, understated voice as its predecessor, commenting on women's lives by interrupting the narrative with brief, factual essays. In "Quilt," these took the form of quilting instructions, which made for an obvious yet effective framework for the parallel story of the quilters themselves. In "Now You See Her," the research Kiki does for the different categories of the game show -- timepieces and calendars, the moon and, for $600, anamorphosis -- serves a similar purpose.

Organizing truth into bites of manageable categories is Kiki's specialty. In fact, she and her friends are as organized and productive in their work lives as they are scattered and drifting in their personal lives. Collier, for example, is a successful video producer who has been involved with the same man over the years, although he happened to marry someone else at one point in their shared history.

But this is no "women who can handle their careers but not their relationships" screed. Rather, it's a sort of an exploration of women approaching middle age in America today.

Even Les (short for Leslie), who by conventional standards has ++ the "right" kind of life with her marriage to Gordon -- Collier's boyfriend -- and their kids, is feeling this unsettling sense of disappearing. "Ah, the great irony of her life is that she can be wife, mother, friend, daughter and that the sum of her parts could equal zero," Les muses at one point. "She laughs to consider that by inhabiting all these roles, Les was becoming less. She was less Les."

As for Kiki, well, she is approaching that milestone birthday and, with her now friend and one-time lover Henry, looking back. This personal history-taking occurs over a series of games of gin, with Kiki asking and Henry responding to questions about "his girl." It works until about "Gin #4," as the chapter is titled, when all the third-person language and couched meanings start to get rather annoying. And, worse, by "Gin #5," Kiki's actual birthday and, presumably, when we'd get the payoff on why their relationship failed . . . we don't. Rather, there's more sighing and poetic hints about "people forget" or people being "disappeared by love." Huh?

Still, the vagueness of the book usually works. It rings true, this sort of drifting of lives, this lack of actual answers to the questions that plague us -- in real life rather than game shows.

What's troubling about the book is its ending. While a sense of magic and disappearing acts hovers around the periphery of the book, in the final pages, Ms. Otto takes us totally into the fantastical. Kiki travels to Paris -- in a nice touch, she takes advantage of her now-you-see-her-now-you-don't properties to

stow away aboard the Concorde -- and meets up with her namesake, Kiki de Montparnasse, Man Ray's model and truly a ghost.

It's an odd ending for a book that resonated with realness despite its touches of mysticism. Kiki's ultimate resolution of her disappearing act is similarly unsatisfying. But, at least, it doesn't involve a game of gin.


Title: "Now You See Her"

Author: Whitney Otto

Publisher: Villard

Length, price: 303 pages, $20

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