Picks and Pans Review: The Anna Papers

updated 12/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Ellen Gilchrist

Gilchrist, who was the winner of the 1984 American Book Award for her dazzling short story collection Victory over Japan, goes down to defeat with her latest novel. The Anna of the title is a beautiful, rambunctious, spoiled, free-thinking, highly-sexed, lovingly meddlesome famous novelist. She's been married several times, has had several miscarriages and several lovers, among them a law student named Pointer whose "body was so beautiful and young and strong. He was so angry, so crazy, so intense." There was also an engineering student named Adam who was "violent and proud, brilliant and talented and poor." Then there was Philip, "the red-haired married baby doctor." "Looking for love in all the wrong places," Anna speculates to herself at one point. "No, not looking. Finding. Anna's problem was finding. Love found her and told her there are things we need that we cannot have." The eldest child in the large, wealthy Hand family of Charlotte, N.C., and the favorite aunt to myriad nieces and nephews, Anna returns home from her adventures to write while rearranging a few lives. She has little time to devote to either project. Discovering that she has a particularly virulent form of cancer, Anna has one last fling with the red-haired Philip, sticks a cyanide tablet in her mouth and walks off a pier into the Atlantic Ocean. It isn't just that The Anna Papers is a meandering, sketchy, inchoate business; it is also unconvincing. Anna's family is described as "wild and barbarous" with their "passions, rivalries, obsessions," but Gilchrist doesn't offer very much evidence for the description. And Anna's adventures never add up to anything like a portrait, so it is difficult to understand what everyone is talking about when they shake their heads and carry on about the madcap Ms. Hand, hard to discern why she is such catnip to men, hard to share the general grief when she dies. Further, the reader is told what an extraordinarily gifted writer Anna is. But based on the fragments offered by Gilchrist, one can only wonder just where those gifts lie. And one can only wonder about Gilchrist herself after reading this: "How strange, she thought, to live in the world and know its wild-ness and fecundity and still be surprised by birth and death, fertility and growth, the dark power of sex, life insisting upon itself, repeating and creating, breaking off and ending." (Little, Brown, $16.96)

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