Novelists Debut: Coming to Terms With Losses in Five Families

The Deep End of the Ocean

By Jacquelyn Mitchard Viking, 434 pp., $23.95

Dance Real Slow

By Michael Grant Jaffe

Farrar Straus Giroux 242 pp., $20

Geyser Life

By Edward Hardy

Bridge Works

244 pp., $21.95

The Other Family

By Jacqueline Carey

Random House

207 pp., $21

The Book of Mercy

By Kathleen Cambor

Farrar Straus Giroux

262 pp., $22

It may be a sign of the times that the families portrayed in no fewer than five recent first novels are all marked by absence of one kind or another.

In "The Deep End of the Ocean," Jacquelyn Mitchard tells the tense story of a family shattered by the disappearance of their three-year-old boy, who becomes the object of a nationwide search. But in the other four books, the missing person is a mother.

The narrator of Michael Grant Jaffe's winsome "Dance Real Slow" is a smalltown lawyer raising his four-year-old son in the wake of his wife's walking out on them. A pair of disaffected adult children, brother and sister, go looking for their father in Edward Hardy's "Geyser Life," but both of them feel that their family first began to fall apart when their mother died, years before. An adolescent girl coming of age in the late 1960s tries to figure out why her mother left her, her father, and her brother to become part of "The Other Family" in Jacqueline Carey's deft novel of that title. And there's a missing, runaway mother, whose absence has left deep scars on the small family of isolated, intense individuals portrayed in Kathleen Cambor's very moving novel, "The Book of Mercy."

Mitchard's The Deep End of the Ocean is a straightforwardly written account of a bizarre misfortune that spawns countless complications. Beth Cappadora, a reasonably happily married mother of three, for some reason decides to take her children along with her for a short trip to her 15th high school class reunion in Chicago. Carrying her infant daughter as she registers at the front desk of a hotel filled with her former classmates, Beth tells seven-year-old Vincent to look after three-year-old Ben. In a matter of moments, Ben disappears.

Mitchard's detailed and realistic portrait of the Cappadora family reveals the distinct personalities of its members while paying close attention to the fraying of family life under the strain of such a loss. Her subject and her exhaustive approach to it may remind some readers of Jane Hamilton's novel, "A Map of the World," which examined a pair of families under stress in the aftermath of a child's accidental drowning. Mitchard's story contains an unexpected twist that serves to confirm what has already been powerfully demonstrated: The most normal of lives can seem to be altered irretrievably by a moment's lapse.

Four-year-old Calvin Nash, the little boy at the heart of Michael Grant Jaffe's engaging Dance Real Slow, likes to eat dirt, collect worms and slugs, and has absolutely no qualms about sticking his pudgy hand down the toilet to retrieve lost objects. Keeping up with him is practically a full-time occupation - but also a labor of love - for his father, Gordon Nash, a smalltown Kansas lawyer who relates the joys and challenges of single-parenthood with wry humor and real feeling, in a clear, direct style reminiscent of the late Raymond Carver.

Calvin's mother, Kate, whose sprightly, impulsive behavior Gordon once adored, took off two years ago to satisfy a sudden yen to see the big, wide world marriage had deprived her of. Thanks to her parents' money, she's been off and traveling ever since. Her easy-going husband is quietly - and justifiably - angry at her, but tries not to let his bitterness cloud his relationship with Calvin, who doesn't seem to remember much of Kate, although he does name one of his strange pets - a dead Portuguese man-o-war preserved in a jar - "Mom."

While Kate sends her deserted family postcard greetings from Bali, Gordon adjusts to a life he never quite planned on: "What I had wanted," he recalls, "was to be a trial attorney ... in courtrooms with marble walkways.... And to live someplace with ... art galleries and Thai restaurants.... Someplace un-Kansas." But life in Kansas has its rewards, especially for someone with Gordon's positive outlook and patience. Jaffe's affectionate rendering of its daily texture makes reading about it equally rewarding.

The two main characters in Edward Hardy's Geyser Life are harder to warm up to. Nate Scales, twenty-something, works at a boring job at a smalltown Massachusetts newspaper. He doesn't see much of his flaky, slightly older sister, Sarah, although she is living nearby. Nate and Sarah don't dislike each other, they just don't like each other all that much. But both are united in their rather childish, adolescent-rebellious hatred for their older brother, Grant, who filled in as a kind of parent figure cum disciplinarian after their mother died, and whose sudden death has now brought the disaffected siblings together for a reading of his will.

Knowing that their wandering father is still alive somewhere, sister and brother set off on a cross-country journey to find him. Headstrong Sarah insists this is their one chance to mend broken family ties, and nervous Nate reluctantly allows her to override his fears about taking off from his job to accompany her on the search. Their story is narrated in the alternating voices of put-upon Nate and exasperated Sarah, occasionally interrupted by the plaintive voice of their unappreciated, deceased brother, Grant, explaining his side of things to the reader.

The characters, their attitudes, and the trials and tribulations of their cross-country peregrination are faithfully and believably portrayed. But despite its clearly defined central theme of searching for a lost father, this novel is surprisingly unfocused. The reader is forced to spend too much time listening to the rambling of two not-very-interesting characters who talk and think in the kind of reality-flattening, emotion-deadening lingo that seems to hang in the air like static nowadays.

Many of the characters in The Other Family are even less appealing people than Nate and Sarah Scales, but Jacqueline Carey's polished, satiric, knowing portrait of their follies and blindnesses makes for highly engrossing reading.

The time is 1968. Joan, the teenage narrator, and her younger brother, Hugh, a budding chess champion, are spending the Fourth of July weekend in New York City with their mother, who left them and their father to find a new life for herself. Or, rather, their mother's new life is in some ways not really new, because she seems to spend most of her time with her sister Iris's family, the Eberlanders.

The Eberlanders have a stylish home in Brooklyn Heights that is very different from the run-down place in Massachussetts where Joan and Hugh have been living with their abandoned father, a once-handsome musician who currently doesn't do very much at all. Aunt Iris's husband, Charles Eberlander, by contrast, is an utterly self-assured, not to say domineering, psychoanalyst whose authoritative pronouncements evoke deference among his professional colleagues and his family members alike. Iris, who worships him, is impressive enough herself: her keen interest in political causes leads her to run for the state assembly - somewhat to her husband's surprised displeasure.

Seen through Joan's sharply observant eyes, the Eberlanders, their friends, Joan's own parents, and the ways in which they choose to lead their lives seem at once, enticing and repellent, smart and foolish, perfectly natural and deeply peculiar.

Joan's voice and the story she has to tell of freedom-loving individuals whose lives spin increasingly out of control make "The Other Family" a compelling novel, bracingly satiric, often funny, yet ultimately rather tragic.

Edmund Mueller is a retired Pittsburgh fireman, whose footloose, dissolute wife ran out on him years ago, leaving him two children to bring up. As Kathleen Cambor's The Book of Mercy begins, Edmund's daughter, Anne, is studying to become a physician, his son, Paul, is a missionary priest in Africa, and Edmund has found a strange mission of his own that consumes - and oddly revives - his declining energies: He is searching for the Philosopher's Stone, the magic power long sought by alchemists of ages past to transform age into youth, sickness into health, lead into gold. The former fireman now tends a furnace in his basement where he conducts experiments set down in the medieval texts of Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus.

Chapters presenting Edmund's thoughts, activities, and aspirations alternate with chapters written from Anne's viewpoint as she leaves home and Pittsburgh for the rigors of medical school in Houston. Paul's hard life in sometimes-dangerous far-off lands is more faintly evoked in the somewhat guarded letters he writes to Anne. The Muellers share a capacity for dedicating themselves to tasks that promise to transform them. Cambor's subtle use of the symbolism of fire binds the physical and metaphysical aspects of her novel, a triptych of three extraordinary individuals in search of love and meaning.

*Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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