Jenn Crowell, 18, has written a novel

March 02, 1997|By LAURA LIPPMAN | LAURA LIPPMAN,SUN STAFF

"Necessary Madness," by Jenn Crowell, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 208 pages, $21.95

At first, I tried to will myself into forgetting that that author of "Necessary Madness" was 17 when her manuscript was accepted for publication. I wanted to have the experience her editor purportedly had, of reading the book and discovering the author's tender age after the fact.

Then I realized that Putnam has no intention of letting anyone read this novel in such blissful ignorance. The galley arrives with a note on the cover from the CEO, Phyllis E. Grann ("It is a smart, touching love story by a gifted young writer ... a very young writer. Jenn Crowell has just turned 18!") The back cover outlines Putnam's marketing plans: 150,000 first printing, $150,000 campaign, national advertising, etc. etc. etc.) In other words, you can run, but you can't hide from the fact that Jenn Crowell is young, young, young.

Give her this: She has not written a standard, coming-of-age story, or heeded the cliched (often misunderstood) advice to write what one knows. "Necessary Madness" is set in London, a place Crowell had never visited when she wrote her novel, and tells the story of a 30-year-old American widow, Gloria, whose artist husband has died of cancer. Her life seems to be taking on the tragic shape of her father's, a man who lost the true love of his life in a car accident and was never whole again.

Crowell demonstrates an extraordinary talent for language and controls the narrative with ease. The writing is polished and the voice authentic. I sensed that Crowell is a voracious and discriminating reader, and was reminded that reading well is often the first step to writing well.

Gloria is a credible character, but never a surprising one. Crowell tiptoes around the solipsism of grief. She knows tragedy doesn't make one a better person, but she can't bring herself to explore the darkest shadows here, as Gloria's young son, Curran, ends up playing parent to his numb Mum. It's unclear to me if Crowell knows how creepy these scenes are, or if she honestly thinks that Gloria is a better parent than her parents.

And so the story moves forward, smoothly and predictably. "Necessary Madness" is slightly more wise than the truths Janis Ian claimed to learn at 17 - love is made for beauty queens, etc., etc. But it also is exactly what one would expect from a very young writer, even one with such obvious talents. A reconciliation with a distant parent, the acceptance that life must be lived forward, even if it can only be understood backward, a last line that quavers with hopefulness.

Has Crowell been done a dis-service by those who have pushed her forward, urging her to publish? I don't think so. Her book is sound and well-crafted, the kind of promising first novel that has made the term "first novel" a pejorative. Now she has had a head start, she can move forward. But she would do well to heed the words of Eudora Welty, the last lines of her memoir, "One Writer's Beginning."

"A sheltered life can be a daring life. For all serious daring starts from within."

Laura Lippman is a Sun feature writer, who writes frequently about publishing. Her first mystery novel, "Baltimore Blues," was recently published by Avon Books.

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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