Picks and Pans Review: Waverly Place

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

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

by Susan Brownmiller

The gay couple downstairs call them "Maggie and Jiggs"—after a battling comic strip duo. The TV correspondent across the hall hears the thuds and screams and turns up the volume of her TV. The neighborhood doctor, slipped a packet of cocaine as payment, treats depression with Valium and bruises with ice packs. It would be hard to envision a more despicable crew of characters than those who brush against, nudge and dismiss the horrors of Waverly Place. The title suggests a chronicle of mores out of someone like Jane Austen or Henry James, and in her first novel, feminist nonfiction author Susan Brownmiller (Against Our Will; Femininity) tries with intermittent success to address modern notions of what is right—or at least tolerable. The book was inspired by the Lisa Steinberg case. Lisa, found comatose in a Greenwich Village apartment in 1987, was the illegally adopted daughter of Joel Steinberg, a lawyer, and Hedda Nussbaum, a onetime author of children's books. Within days, the 6-year-old girl was dead in one of the most wrenching cases of child abuse in recent history. "The day the child died," Brownmiller informs in her introduction, "I began to write, to imagine how the couple...could have traveled the distance from people I might have known to such a nightmare..." That distance is remarkably well covered as Brownmiller probes the "duet in hell" created by two self-obsessed, emotionally crippled and drug-ravaged adults. "Judith Winograd" is an intelligent but distant woman whose loveless middle-class upbringing provides the seeds of sexual capitulation. During their 17-year relationship, Winograd's longing for Barry Kantor evolves from minor masochism ("Dinner. She wondered if she would be included") to a slavery so absolute she will forgive him beatings that result in hospitalization. Worse: Her mind numbed by Percodan or rattled by crack, Judith never tries to intervene when Barry's rage turns on their daughter, Melinda. ("Melinda, Melinda, what was wrong with her lately?" Winograd wonders as she hears the ominous slap in the room next door. "Why did she do things that got him upset?...The child had to learn. She had learned.") Despite his megalomania—or maybe because of it—Barry can turn on enough charm to convince a pompous school principal or a timid social worker that he's the very best of fathers. Indeed, Melinda loves him—and here is where Brownmiller's fiction falters. Take Melinda and her baby brother (also illegally adopted) away from this story, and it is just another sordid city tale; their presence—as witnesses, as victims—should provide the tragic elevation. But the author fails to paint flesh and feelings on her most important character, the "spirited little girl with red hair" she evokes in her prelude. Though Waverly Place teases the intellect, it only rarely reaches into the heart of the horror. (Grove Press. $18.95)

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