Grotesques, maturation, flight, passion

Four Novels

May 09, 2004|By Heller McAlpin | Heller McAlpin,Chicago Tribune

Just when you think you've had it with coming-of-age stories about dysfunctional families, along comes Stacy Sims with a fresh, edgy angle. Her brutally moving first novel, Swimming Naked (Penguin, 243 pages, $24.95), which is due out this month, is told from the perspective of 30-year-old Lucy Greene, a chain-smoking photography curator from Ohio who depicts her family as if they were grotesques in a Diane Arbus photograph.

Lucy is in Florida to attend her 58-year-old mother, who is dying of metastasized lung cancer. With the regularity of a metronome, she alternates between her bleak present and her family's hellish past. Sims opens with an annual vacation to a lakeside cottage, "an attempt to make us feel as though we were a happy little family, with rituals and everything." When Lucy's mother takes her skinny-dipping alone under the stars, 6-year-old Lucy is dazzled: "It seemed she was saying something to me where the words were the same as what she actually meant. I was speechless with suspicion."

Back at the cottage, the spell is broken when a storm erupts, terrifying her older sister, Anna, one of the strangest neurotics in literature. Their father is struck by lightning during the storm and disappears a few months later.

At her mother's deathbed decades later, Lucy learns he's still alive, "a fat old man, a moronic Arbus freak." Anna, meanwhile, ends up in and out of rehab for multiple addictions. Lucy comments: "Anna's view of the world made mine seem utterly wholesome and compassionate, like I was Walker Evans alongside her Robert Mapplethorpe, both of us capturing completely different images of the same incidents for the family album."

Sims works toward a stunningly beautiful climax while bringing painful pictures into excruciating focus.

Lorna J. Cook's first novel, Departures (St. Martin's, 242 pages, $22.95), focuses on two Michigan siblings on the cusp of adulthood. Seventeen-year-old Suzen VanderZee suspects her preoccupied mother of adultery, prefers horticulture to college and has a crush on her lesbian boss at the nursery where she interns. Meanwhile, her 15-year-old brother, Evan, is in the throes of his first flirtation, with a girl who flouts authority. Frightened, he yearns for escape and urges his father, an English professor, to take the family abroad on a long-overdue sabbatical.

These deadly earnest teen-agers are on a journey, coming to terms with their parents' sexuality and their own. Suzen regards her parents' marriage as being like "the cycles of a washing machine: agitate, rinse, spin." Evan likens their anger to snow, "quiet and cold, accumulating in the background until you are surprised by its depth." Cook allows us -- and eventually her two teens -- to see that neither has the parents right.

With highly literate prose that occasionally veers into the self-conscious, Departures captures the hubbub of a large family and the vast gulch between generations in a clear-eyed meditation on maturation.

A woman grounded by maternal responsibilities yearns for flight in Kathleen Hughes' pensive first novel, Dear Mrs. Lindbergh (Norton, 302 pages, $24.95).

Octogenarians Henry and Ruth Gutterson disappear while driving home to their Iowa farm after Thanksgiving in Chicago with their grown children. Searching for clues, their son and daughter delve into their parents' past, particularly their passion for aviation.

They unearth a trove of letters Ruth wrote over 50 years to Anne Morrow Lindbergh detailing her longing for adventure. The confessional missives read like an unedited journal, both revealing and repetitive.

There's an old-fashioned, muted tone to Hughes' story, a flatness suited to the expansive Midwestern landscape. But Hughes has an unfortunate tendency to land her long sentences heavily, often using two words where one will do: "some fluke, anomaly," "hollowed out, eviscerated."

What soars are details of early air-mail aviation, an occupation so dangerous that of the first 40 pilots transporting air mail in 1918, only nine were still alive seven years later.

Ruth loves the view from on high, "the rest of the world, cracked open for her like a geode."

"Flying is living," she gushes.

In The Memoir Club (St. Martin's, 280 pages, $24.95), Laura Kalpakian's ninth novel, six Portland women meet for a class in memoir writing. It's a handy device for excavating misery in its myriad mutations, but stilted dialogue and contrived situations make one wish for an amnesia epidemic.

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