Picks and Pans Review: Before and After
09/21/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT
by Rosellen Brown
In a small New Hampshire town a pretty teenage girl is brutally murdered. On duty at the hospital when the body arrives is pediatrician Carolyn Reiser. Just a few hours later the chief of police pays a business call on his friends Carolyn and Ben Reiser. Their son, Jacob, is the prime suspect, and he is missing.
In Before and After, Brown, the acclaimed author of such powerful family dramas as Civil Wars and Tender Mercies, tells a chilling story of ordinary people living to cope with an unthinkable event. As transplanted New Yorkers, and as a doctor and a sculptor, Carolyn and Ben are perhaps not typical New England Yankees. But they're nice, they love each other, they're part of the community. She sings in a chorus, he plays in a regular poker game. Their kids, Jacob, 17, and Judith, 12, are bright, go to school, hang out.
That's the before. After is a different story. To tell it, Ben, Carolyn and Judith, in alternating sections, reveal in their distinctive voices the murder's terrible toll. From Ben's rage at the police, Carolyn's determination to do what's right and Judith's very private devastation, it's clear each will grieve in a different way. It's also clear how little they knew about Jacob: not even that the dead girl was his girlfriend; not even that he was capable of such an act. As the search for Jacob, his capture and subsequent trial go on around them, family differences magnify.
Parents and sister crawl into separate shells to suffer alone. Or worse, they act independently and to extremes: one in the name of love, the others in the name of truth. It's parent against parent, child against parent and family against community. Only Judith sees with any clarity. In trying to crack this horrible new image of her adored (and usually kind) brother, she remembers times when she was afraid of his temper and, at least once, of his senseless cruelty.
Brown writes beautifully and believably, capturing anger, doubt and bewilderment. Before and After is as gripping as a well-spun murder mystery—only here the mysteries are inside, where, Brown tells us, we rarely investigate until it's too late. (Farrar Straus Giroux, $21)