Picks and Pans Review: Anagrams

updated 12/01/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/01/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Lorrie Moore

The sadness of this novel is all the more penetrating because the despair it reflects is so subtle. The sadness leads to such pain because the heroine is so likable and is determined to avoid self-pity. She is Benna Carpenter, about to turn 34, an English instructor at a small college; she is widowed (her husband died in what may have been a suicidal car accident) and childless. She has, however, created an imaginary daughter, Georgianne. Their fanciful life is full of Warmth and humor and, to a reader, it's heartbreaking. While Benna has no trouble attracting men—"Here is someone," she frequently says to herself—her connections to them seem frayed and unanchored. She wants, for instance, to be in love with Darrel, a Vietnam vet who is one of her students, but he tells her he feels emotionally numb: "Sometimes I just don't feel capable of love—not the kind you're talking about and want." Benna's sense of comic relief protects her much of the time. She imagines her daughter garbling the words to a song as they walk the aisles of Woolworth's: "When you walk through a store keep your head up high...." She also has a bantering relationship with a neighbor, an aspiring opera singer who plays motel cocktail lounges. Moore, author of a 1985 short story collection, Self-Help, on occasion settles for easy sitcom jokes. She has the little girl drop a bag of Thanksgiving groceries (in an elaborately set-up scene) and say, "Mom, I broke the turkey." Sorting out the fantasy scenes from real ones isn't always easy either. Usually, however, this first novel achieves a remarkable coherence. Though she encounters another traumatic event, Benna keeps trying, baffled that intelligence, patience and good intentions never get her anywhere: "I forage through my life and everywhere—there, there, and there—it is only me in it, the very same me, the same harmless lump, the same soggy weirdo, the same sleeping, breathing bun. Georgianne, too, perhaps, even when she's old, will be the same flanneled muffin as now, this snoring puff, this snoozy breath and heart always." (Knopf, $15.95)

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