BLACK AND BLUE
By Anna Quindlen
293 pp., $23
When Anna Quindlen was mapping the social landscape of late-20th-century America as a columnist for The New York Times, she wrote regularly about domestic violence. With a blend of compassion and outrage, she gave eloquent voice to a sisterhood of women who remain largely silent and invisible.
Now, in her third novel, "Black and Blue," Quindlen has turned those real-life women into a courageous fictional heroine, Fran Benedetto, a 38-year-old Brooklyn nurse. After enduring years as "a punching bag and marionette" in the hands of her husband, Bobby, a policeman, Fran flees, taking the couple's 10-year-old son, Robert, with her. She is aided by an underground network of nameless volunteers who help abused women establish "new lives in new places" and "start over in the great expansive anonymous sameness of America."
For Fran and her son, those new lives bring new identities - Beth and Robert Crenshaw - and a new address in a dusty central Florida town, Lake Plata. Their dingy garden apartment is so small that Beth needs only a single gallon of butter-yellow paint to cover the living room walls.
Terrified that an enraged Bobby will track them down, Beth becomes a "peeping Tom of a parent." She volunteers in the school library so she can watch her son. She installs a baby monitor under his bed, so if someone opens his bedroom window, she'll hear it. She scans crowds for her husband's face and stands behind the screen in her apartment every afternoon, waiting for the school bus to deliver Robert safely home. Through it all, she knows that "my greatest fear is his fondest wish. Daddy. Daddy. Daddy."
Gradually, Beth eases the isolation of her fugitive life. She works part time as a home health-care aide. The first mother she meets on the opening day of school becomes a best friend. And Robert's soccer coach becomes a jogging partner and confidant.
But even in this new life, Beth wonders every night "how it might have been different." She recognizes that she was locked in place not only by her husband but by all the comforting details of domesticity, from "balloon shades and miniblinds and the way I felt at night sleeping on my extra-firm mattress" to the "solid, settled feeling" of finding the same mugs on the same hooks in the cupboard.
Quindlen deftly explores the rocky emotional terrain of love and marriage, as well as the complexities of secrets and lies, choices and consequences. In the process, she poses timeless questions: What - and where - is home? What constitutes freedom? And when does the price of freedom exceed its value?
At times the book borders on the didactic, as if Quindlen, the skilled novelist, has briefly reverted to Quindlen, the earnest columnist, wanting to be sure her readers "get it" about domestic abuse - why, for example, against all bruised black-and-blue evidence, women stay with abusive partners, and why they leave.
Quindlen's smooth, compelling prose also occasionally overreaches, producing strained imagery that doesn't quite work ("all those small mosaic pieces of self that felt barely held together with plaster of personality"). And although she neatly captures both Beth's vulnerability and her strength, Beth never becomes a fully rounded character.
As early as her high school days, Quindlen expressed an ambition to write "the great American novel." This isn't it. Still, "Black and Blue" carries the ring of truth, and its aching sadness is redeemed in part by Quindlen's tender portrait of indomitable maternal love.
* Marilyn Gardner is a Monitor columnist who writes on family issues.