Picks and Pans Review: Family Pictures

updated 05/28/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/28/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Sue Miller

When her childhood is long since past, and her life is etched with troubles of her own making, Nina Eberhardt meets a stranger at a party. Struggling to place Nina, the old woman searches her memory and finally succeeds: "Oh yes!.... You were the family with that tragic young retarded boy." Years after his death, the great, unresponsive force that was Randall, the Eberhardts' autistic third child, defines them still.

In Millers dazzling and disturbing third novel, Nina is one of the "extras," as her psychiatrist father, David, liked to call them, the first of three daughters born after Randall. David's wife, Lainey, rocked by the unexpected bad luck, insisted on the pregnancies, "as though she thought another child would break the spell."

In some way, perhaps, they do break the spell, these three, fluttering, energetic siblings in a household that throbs with emotional strain. But not even Nina, the professional photographer, can provide an accurate portrait of their life. Family Pictures—family memories—vary dramatically, Miller points out. And so the author shifts her focus constantly, trying to find the one frame that might be able to approximate the truth.

The Eberhardts are a sophisticated family—a picture of Freud, after all, hangs on their Chicago kitchen wall—and better equipped than most to deal with a Randall in their midst. But the price of David's intelligence is a biting sarcasm; their mother's warmth comes trimmed with madness. As the deceptively simple '50s fade away, family pressures collide with the confusion of the next decade. David, temporarily, bolts; elder son Mack loses his grip. Yet when Mack's high school history teacher tentatively approaches Lainey, asking if there is "anything going on at home," she dismisses the concern. "Well, the thing about home is," says Lainey, "there's life, at home."

In this novel, as well. As she did in The Good Mother, Miller offers a domestic study that is rich with the weight of the ordinary. As a portrait of an American family caught among mid-century upheavals and demands, it is unsurpassed. (Harper & Row, $19.95)

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