Anna Quindlen's 'Black and Blue': Abuse is bad!

January 25, 1998|By Tamsin Todd | Tamsin Todd,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Black and Blue," by Anna Quindlen. Random House. 293 pages $22.

Why does domestic abuse happen? What drives the cycle of love and hate, repulsion and dependence? Do people know how to stop it? These are questions Anna Quindlen asks in "Black and Blue," her new novel about domestic abuse. It's a splendid subject for a novel - complex, vivid and ageless.

If only Anna Quindlen could pull it off. Instead, this intense portrait of an abused woman does little more than tell us what we already know - that domestic abuse is a very, very bad thing.

We learn this from the experience of the novel's narrator, E.R. nurse Fran Benedetto. Fran escapes her abusive Brooklyn policeman husband by applying for help to Patty Bancroft, a mysterious woman who specializes in making abuse victims "disappear." She takes a new identity as Elizabeth Crenshaw and, together with her son, Robert, begins a new life in Lake Plata, Fla.

The dull, insipid tone in which Fran tells her story may reflectthe emotional stunting that's the result of abuse, but this doesn't ameliorate one of the main problems with this novel, which is that Fran isn't very interesting. Her thoughts never push the limits of the ordinary.

Here's a typical insight: "The sweet potatoes in the casserole dish on the kitchen counter looked like a photograph from some recipes in a magazine." There's an annoying predictability to the associations Fran makes, as when Fran's husband tells her he's getting a tattoo: "He talked about getting a tattoo on his shoulder, a rose and the word Frances. I said I'd get Yosemite Sam on my upper thigh. ... It turned out I didn't need it; Bobby tattooed me himself, with his hands." It's hard to feel compelled by Fran's voice, and therefore hard to care about Fran's problems, even though they are truly awful.

The story, too, lacks imaginative force. There are moments of psychological insight, like when Fran, lonely and friendless in her dull Lake Plata apartment, considers phoning her sister, or when she recollects the sound of her husband's sexy, serpentine voice. More often, the story reads like boilerplate.

Even the violence that predictably erupts at the end of the novel fails to rouse. It has a scripted, artificial feel, like something you've read in the tabloids or seen on daytime TV a million times.

Only Robert isn't generic. He speaks like no other 10-year-old. At the very moment his mother is getting used to her new identity, Robert draws a family tree. "I figured out how to do this," he says. "Like, once I don't mind what I call people, then it can be just like it really is. Here's Daddy, only I called him Robert Crenshaw." The child is prescient.

Quindlen won a Pulitzer Prize for her journalism, and "Black and Blue" is closer to journalism than fiction. It isn't deeply imagined: It offers a number of facts about abuse, but fails to convey a sense of the abuse. If, like me, you come to this novel looking for fresh insight into domestic abuse, you will be disappointed.

Tamsin Todd is a free-lance writer whose short stories have been published in Primavera, Queen's Quarterly and Vignette. She has also contributed essays, profiles, book and film reviews to the Austin Chronicle newspaper, Salon and the Washington Post Book World.

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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