Wednesday, June 27, 2012

LUANNE RICE'S LITTLE NIGHT


OK, so Luanne Rice’s thirtieth novel is an aria, not opera. That is not necessarily bad. Rice has a deft touch with family situations and this book centers a dysfunction family whose mechanics eventually doom its children, Clare and Anne. Somehow, Clare is able to transcend a childhood spent with a philandering father and an enabling mother. Anne does not. The way she chooses to continue the pattern of emotional abuse is to marry Frederik, a Danish glassblower a less damaged woman would recognized as a controlling egomaniac. Predictably, he isolates her from Clare. Predictably, Clare tries to rescue her little sister and her offspring, Gilly and Grit. She does so by bashing Frederik over the head with a burning log as he tries to choke the living daylights out of Anne. But it is Frederik who prevails when the police arrives. Anne, who seems to be suffering from Stockholm syndrome, accuses Clare of trying to kill her husband. This happens in real life. In many cases, the abused bonds with the abuser. It is Anne’s subsequent trial and jail sentence that raises a number of troublesome questions such as, where the heck was Clare’s lawyer? Surely a good lawyer would have investigated Frederik’s history of abuse and found enough evidence to justify Clare’s defense of her sister. When Clare ends up being sent to jail for two years, the reader is left to imagine that her lawyer was an overworked public defender who graduated at the bottom of his class. That brings up the next question, why does this middle class professional or her middle class boyfriend find another lawyer, demand an appeal, raise Cain?These questions remain unanswered although one might surprise that her past history programmed Clare to be a victim. Abuse is a difficult topic and it is to Rice’s credit that she chose to deal with it in LITTLE NIGHT. The problem is that so much of it is made up of situations that do not translate well into fiction. Fiction demands more shades and nuances and abuse tends to be monochramatically dark. Abusers tend to be one-dimension and Fredrik is very much a cardboard cut-out. Again, this is no big deal in real life. Fiction, however, requires a bit more uncertainty, a few more surprises. But if some of her characters and situations might seem formulaic, Rice’s exquisite account of Clare’s work as an urban birder and nature blogger is pure delight. She shines in her loving portrait of Anne’s daughter, Grit, who is as real as bad traffic in the city. Equally real, detailed and absorbing are her descriptions of New York birds and their habitat. These provide the strongest underpinning for the plot, which is, ultimately, about healing, growing up, moving on. Birding and nature draw Grit to Clare’s doorstep.It allows aunt and niece to rebuild the bridge Frederik destroyed in his effort to keep Clare and Anne apart. Nature helps resolve the difficulties between Clare and Paul, her exceptionally sensitive and understanding park ranger boyfriend. It helps Grit shares secrets that illuminate the darkness of her life as the child of abusive parents. All in all, LITTLE NIGHT is a beautiful novel. To find fault with Rice’s work is merely a way of saying that she can come closer to perfection and that is why I look forward to her next novel.

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