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Picks and Pans Review: Confessions of a Bad Girl

updated 07/17/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/17/1989 01:00AM

by Bette Pesetsky

In "Foul Play," the first in this series of interconnected stories, a sassy, plain young woman named Cissie talks about spinning tales of her childhood to keep boyfriends on the string. "Barry never got enough of my childhood, he was nostalgic for it," says Cissie. Her beau is particularly intrigued when she talks of her father, who ran away to join the circus, and her aunt, who smelled—so fabricates this latter-day Scheherazade—like the bottom of a purse: "a mixture of spilled Max Factor powder, scraps of paper, a stirring of crumbs."

In "The Spacedons," Cissie's brother Sylvester is "adopted" by a family of orphans whose house "sat like a chewed upright pencil on a wide lawn." In "Penny and Willie," Sylvester, now grown up with a family, buys a dog for his lonely young daughter. In "Orphans," Cissie tries to decide whether to have cosmetic surgery: "My best friends Claire, Anne, Imelda and Bernadette are dubious. Bad timing, they insist. My therapist is named Dora. We are going back through my life. From her I have not yet received a yes or no on the facelift. She and I have differing although not incompatible views. She is big on small traumas."

The fact is, everyone in Confessions of a Bad Girl is an orphan. Everyone in this splendidly written book tries, mostly in vain, to make a connection; if the connection is made, it is swiftly broken. Brother and sisters are alienated or uneasy in each other's company. Fathers abandon their families for other women, wives stay put when their husbands relocate, mothers don't speak to their sons, children make lists of all the broken relationships they can enumerate—including the person responsible. "The list," says Cissie's daughter Eleanor, "took all day. Everyone we knew, and relatives.... We used names from dancing school, we did Girl Scouts, we did from Wendy's mother's exercise class, from Dramatics Club, from Carol's stupid therapy group. The only rule was that you had to know the person or have heard about them firsthand. Otherwise it wasn't fair. We have 237 names."

Pesetsky's style is sharp and brisk. Here is a session in which Cissie and estranged husband Raoul meet with Neal, the Play therapist, to talk about their troubled daughter: "We sat in the beige room. I had been to the offices of Child Behavior before. There was an institutional cum schoolroom, a warm maple-inspired office, and there was the beige room. In the beige room, Neal liked to talk modern." Not all the stories in the collection succeed; several seem effortful and pointlessly obscure. But at her best, Pesetsky can be both touching and absolutely to the point. (Atheneum, $16.95)

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