Picks and Pans Review: Equal Affections

updated 02/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

by David Leavitt

David Leavitt has tremendous sensitivity for dealing with the inequities inherent in any human relationship. Affections are never equal. For example, Leavitt apparently loves writing novels for us; reading them, however, isn't always such a joy, His 1984 story collection. Family Dancing, was widely praised; the New York Times said Leavitt "has the power to move us with the blush of truth." But in this novel, as in his first one, The Lost Language of Cranes, the moments of truth are dulled by such murky verbiage as "his absence really felt no different from his presence." Danny, a young lawyer, shares central character billing with his mother, Louise. He lives in a New Jersey suburb, blissfully unaware that his lover, Walter, is addicted to computer sex and wants to run away. His sister, a famous lesbian folksinger, decides to have a baby. (Leavitt doesn't explore the issues surrounding homosexual siblings, maybe because there's too much going on as it is.) Meanwhile, Louise fights a losing battle with cancer and with Nat, her husband of more than 40 years who cheats but stays around because she's sick. Leavitt purports to tie all these potential short stories together with the death of the family matriarch, but his ideas and symbolic riffs drown in the text. The only way to take this book is in very small stretches, where Leavitt's ability to put our darkest and purest moments on paper can have a powerful impact. As Nat watches his wife fade on her deathbed, for instance, he thinks hopefully—and guiltily—of his mistress: "A terrible thought...he closed his eyes, made a small fist. A bud of happiness, a tiny marble of happiness he could roll in his palm, and no one would know." Given that kind of ability to compress and express emotional traumas, perhaps Leavitt should go back to the short story and sin no more. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $18.95)

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