Ukiyo-e, melancholy, soap, betrayal

Six March Novels

March 17, 2002|By John Muncie | John Muncie,Sun Staff

Much to the relief of writers everywhere, there's no such thing as a simple human relationship. This set of spring novels takes particular glory in the myriad complexities that tie together friends, families and lovers.

Take A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity (Random House, 283 pages, $23.95). Nash is living with Catalina but is having an affair with Georgia. Georgia's best friend is Beth, who roomed for a while with Ginny and Selena. Selena is pals with Elodie, who house-sits for Nash. And this is but one strand in the tangle of lives that make up the latest by Whitney Otto, author of How to Make an American Quilt.

The title comes from a series of prints by artist Kitagawa Utamaro who, in the late 18th century, chronicled the hedonistic life -- the so-called "Floating World" -- of the idle elite in Edo, Japan. In similarly hedonistic fashion, Otto's beauties -- a group of aimless, post-collegiate, early 1980's San Franciscans -- float in and out of each others' lives.

Otto pushes the Japanese connection hard. Prints by Utamaro and others are reproduced in the book and images from them are echoed in the text. And, like a series of Japanese prints, the story is made up of small, exquisite vignettes.

It's an intriguing conceit and Otto controls it well. Her sentences are elegant; her imagery exquisite. There is a sense, however, of too much control. Because the characters are little more than delicate sketches, many of the scenes, like many Japanese prints, seem quiet, distanced and stylized. Still, this shallow, two-dimensional world of parties, minor heartbreak and drugs is beautifully expressed.

Though the cast is much smaller, there's a similar tangle of relationships in The Strength of the Sun (Henry Holt, 272 pages, $23) by New Zealander Catherine Chidgey. Everyone is tenuously connected, by various degrees of separation, to Patrick Mercer, an English scholar specializing in medieval manuscripts. When Mercer drives off a bridge and into a coma, the connections between characters in England and New Zealand begin to slowly clarify.

"Slowly" may be the key word here. Not much happens. There's a lot of tea drinking and staring meaningfully out of windows. Many of the characters lug around tragic pasts -- most prominently, the death of a child -- but much of the tragedy happens off camera or is revealed in small increments amid confusing chronological crosscutting.

In the end, this melancholic meditation on family secrets is like a medieval manuscript: beautiful but remote.

The death of children is the linchpin of Chris Bohjalian's The Buffalo Soldier (Shaye Areheart Books, 404 pages, $25). It begins with the drowning of the 9-year-old twin Sheldon girls in a freak rainstorm and then examines the struggles of their parents, Laura and Terry, as they try to keep their marriage, their lives, and their futures from drowning in the grief.

What may save them is 11-year-old Alfred, a foster child they've taken in two years after the fatal flood. Through Alfred, Laura and Terry hope to reattach the familial connections that were ripped apart by the tragedy. However, Alfred brings with him a whole storm front of his own. The Sheldons are a middle-class, white couple living in a tiny Vermont village, Alfred is a troubled black kid who's been shuffled around numerous dysfunctional city families.

It's an affecting premise and Bohjalian allows the characters' relationships -- as well as their fears, insecurities and hopes -- to evolve naturally. Unfortunately, while deft with action and description (the New England setting is well drawn), Bohjalian is clumsy with motive. The internal landscapes are too vague. A leaden writing style doesn't help. And, after 350 unhurried pages, the denouement comes too quickly and too neatly. The sensitive story doesn't deserve such a soap opera ending.

Deep into John Crowley's latest book, The Translator (William Morrow, 295 pages, $24.95), a shadowy character, who's maybe an FBI agent, asks Christa "Kit" Malone the crucial question: "What do you actually know about this guy?"

The guy in question is exiled Russian poet Innokenti Issayevich Falin. And the answer to the question is: Maybe everything, maybe nothing. Kit thinks Falin is her mentor, muse and lover, but it's not clear. She may, in effect, be mistranslating their relationship.

The year is 1961. Kit is a college freshman with a poetic soul and a troubled past. At the school she meets Falin, a mysterious Russian exile who teaches poetry. They're instantly attracted to each other and then must struggle to bridge the great chasms that separate them: age, background, experience, culture and language.

Crowley crams a lot into the situation. The theme of communication -- missed and made -- must vie with such heavy notions as death, loss, identity and betrayal. By the time the Cuban missile crisis joins the story, The Translator nearly collapses under the weight.

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