Picks and Pans Review: Illumination Night

updated 08/10/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/10/1987 01:00AM

by Alice Hoffman

Within the 215 pages of this novel, Hoffman creates at least a half dozen vivid, convincing characters. This is more than just a flourish of technique. By engaging her readers' empathy so adroitly, Hoffman draws them into exposing themselves to the kind of pain—the pain of commitment—that haunts her story. It is set on Martha's Vineyard. There is a young couple: Andre, who restores old motorcycles, and his wife, Vonny, a potter. Their 5-year-old, Simon, is very small for his age. They live next door to Elizabeth, an aging woman who is alone until her granddaughter, Jody, a high school junior, comes to take care of her. Not far away is a farm-stand run by Eddie, a young man who is so tall that he never lets himself be seen in public because everyone gawks at him. Hoffman, who has written such equally involving novels as White Horses and Fortune's Daughter, takes the risk of shifting her point of view among her characters, including Simon. His thought processes seem intricate for even a prodigious 5-year-old, but the shifts allow Hoffman to provide an uncommon amount of insight. At one point Vonny goes to New York to ask her wealthy father for a small loan, and he calmly tells her "you may like to think otherwise, but I don't owe you anything." Hoffman writes, "At home Simon is probably waking from his nap, and Vonny wonders if he'll cry when he realizes she's not there. Can it be that as a child she put her head on her father's pillow the way Simon does when he comes in to sleep beside her?" Almost every time anyone makes himself emotionally vulnerable, in fact, it leads to rejection. When Vonny retreats into agoraphobia, believing a force field will stop her if she walks out the door, it seems all too inevitable. Eddie's isolation is of a different, self-imposed nature, but it fits the sad pattern. While Hoffman makes Eddie more of a symbolic figure than seems necessary—everyone even thinks of him as "the Giant"—she keeps control even in the most volatile situations. In a sexual encounter between two of the principals, for example, she creates an intense, erotically heated scene with straightforward, simple language. More remarkably, despite a succession of disheartening events, including illness, adultery and a terrible accident, the novel never succumbs to despair. Hoffman seems finally to be exploring an observation that is commonplace yet infinitely complex: People suffer, they rage, they come to terms with the randomness of life. (Putnam, $18.95)

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