A series of too-quickly-resolved dilemmas make this story about familial repression more like a manual: how to grow emotionally without breaking a sweat. Dwyer (The Tracks of Angels, 1994) documents the troubles of the Flannigans, a fragmented southern California family, in the weeks surrounding the suicide of oldest son Luke. His sister, Kate, a sculptor, has her own problems: to marry or not to marry Alek Perez, solid citizen and history teacher at her daughter's high school? To forgive or not to forgive sister Colleen, who stole Kate's husband ten years ago? At the same time, Audrey, Kate's perspicacious 13-year-old, is quietly trying to deal with her own repressed traumas. The point of view nimbly shifts from Luke to Audrey to Kate, with mixed results: the story finds its most appealingly dark figure in Luke, a high-functioning depressive who, despite adoring family members, sinks slowly toward suicide, apparently out of sheer passivity; he's just never caught on to this whole business of living. Meanwhile, Kate, ostensibly the central character, never fully emerges as believable, though it is her 'self— that is the subject of the title's —portrait—: a fabulously kitschy ceramic rendering of the artist's head from which sprout no fewer than nine figurines, representing Flannigans in appropriately mythical attitudes. For all Dwyer's delicate, even luminous prose, the tone here is perhaps best emblematized by the clumsy psychodrama of that earthenware head. Colleen's wrenching betrayal of her sister, the formative event of Kate's adult life, is resolved in a moment of forgiveness that passes almost unnoticed. When Kate wraps up her mental goodbye to her brother with a comforting Thanksgiving tableau (—Gingerbread, coffee, family . . . I know it's not much, but it's enough—), we get the feeling that whipped cream has been dolloped on poor Luke's corpse a bit prematurely. For self-actualization fans, a richly detailed and gracefully written family romance.
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