Picks and Pans Review: The Ragged Way People Fall Out of Love

updated 02/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Elizabeth Cox

" 'I don't love you anymore,' William told Molly one Sunday afternoon as they sat together in the den. His eyes had a glass-slick look, strong with conscience, it comes down to that, I think." He smiled. She wanted to ask him why he smiled. She knew he didn't mean to.... She blushed when he said he didn't love her, the same way she blushed 18 years ago when he told her for the first time that he did love her."

So begins Cox's second novel. She is particularly effective at capturing the small moments—architect William Hanner watching morning cartoons with his young son, Lucas; William fishing with his older son, Joe, who's all of 16 and full of the wisdom of the ages. "A lot of my friends' parents have split," Joe tells him. "It happens. I know people who've gone through it."

Or there's Molly, a painter, practicing how she'll tell her children their father has moved out. And Cox effectively limns a marriage in disintegration: the couple too unhappy to argue, the dozy, early-morning lovemaking whose core is pure pain.

What William found charming in Molly years before—how she would get dressed after a shower without toweling off—he now finds annoying. William puts on a new shirt, and Molly wonders when he bought it. Indeed, Cox is so often sure of her terrain, and her prose is generally so deft that a few clumsy stretches seem especially obtrusive: "When he took off his clothes, Molly saw that he was more manly than she had imagined" or "Louise had exposed her invisible threads of passion."

There is one piece of plot that seems to belong to another book entirely—the saga of a homeless man befriended by Molly. And there is another hideously melodramatic turn—Joe's supposed drowning—that only the most generous-hearted reader will be able to forgive, let alone forget.

Still, there is an undeniable poignancy to Cox's chronicle of a family gamely trying to pick up the pieces of its broken heart. (North Point, $18.95)

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