Picks and Pans Review: The Beginner's Book of Dreams

updated 05/16/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/16/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Elizabeth Benedict

There are a hundred tiny heartbreaks in this quietly intense novel by the author of 1985's Slow Dancing. It begins with Esme Singer as an 8-year-old in New York, watching the skaters at Rockefeller Center and then lighting candles at St. Patrick's Cathedral; it ends with her as a young woman, a photography student at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. Nothing dramatic happens in the interim, except that Esme learns the often subtle differences between wishes—promises, dreams, fantasies, prayers—and lies. Her mother, Georgia, a failed actress, is addicted to alcohol and hapless men. Her father (her parents are divorced) wanders the world getting involved in get-rich-quick schemes; he seems like a refugee from O'Neill's den of pipe dreamers in The Iceman Cometh. By the time she's 17, Esme has long since faced the truth about her parents' lives. When her mother, in a discussion about men, tells her that "you have to settle for less than the knight in shining armor," Esme says she won't compromise. "I never thought I would either," Georgia says. "I'm not going to change my mind," Esme answers, and her mother says, "Lots of luck, sweetheart." Like all coming-of-age novels, this one has a hard time avoiding the trap of making its protagonist seem overly profound; the family of Esme's best friend also seems too perfect a contrast—the father is a famous, articulate, humane photographer, and the mother is brilliant, caring and witty. But Benedict adroitly maintains the tension between the clarity of vision that can be so demoralizing to the young and the stubborn sense of hope that saves them. Esme's father, of all people, says to her (in a pique over his own parents' behavior), "If people want to believe their own lies, what can you do?" That Esme, in her more lucid moments, sees the self-deception in her life, is her triumph; Benedict's achievement is in creating the provocative argument that while people have to face the realities of optimism, it's necessary to dream too. (Knopf, $18.95)

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