Picks and Pans Review: The Moralist of the Alphabet Streets
The heroine-narrator of this sylphlike, winningly punctilious novel is Meredith Saunders, an 18-year-old Connecticut girl whose leukemia has been in remission for nearly five years.
Her illness is not mere incident. The experience of having been near death—of having to confront life's consequences at much too young an age—have sobered her, made her more appreciative of nuance and detail. So she can say, with more authority than most teenagers could, "When I start thinking about all the slender likelihoods from which things grow, I feel how possible it is for everything to slip away, and loss creeps over me like a long shadow."
The plot revolves around a visit by her two older sisters, Lenore, separated from an alcoholic husband, and Maria, the subject of a rabid courting ritual by a married man, and her dotty-as-a-fox 86-year-old grandmother, Grace. That the married man is also the stepfather of Meredith's best friend—a boy she may or may not be inclined to fall in love with—provides enough complications to satisfy any soap-opera fans who stray into the novel.
In a couple of sequences the book verges on a tacky kind of coming-of-age fiction. Meredith describes her first sexual experience this way: "He was kissing my mouth, my eyes, my forehead, and coaxing all sorts of mystery spots until the core to my reactor was on the verge of a meltdown."
At other moments, Meredith's level of maturity seems excessive—in a Holden Caulfield sort of way. She says, for instance, "For most people religion is the discipline they would otherwise not have—a church mural in which the eyes always seem to be following them."
Marsh, however, writes so gracefully and has such an acute (if inwardly spiraling) sense of humor she makes Meredith's extremes of behavior, from mere girlishness to worldly wisdom, seem plausible.
A free-lance documentary filmmaker, Marsh is more straightforward in this book than she was in her first novel, 1988's Long Distances, which consisted entirely of letters and postcards. Her innovation here is in the book's tone—somehow solemn and playful at the same time—and in the way she treats her characters with respect and affection, but not excessive respect and affection. (Algonquin, $17.95)