At the center of Winthrop’s latest (Fireworks, 2006), which concerns a Manhattan family in crisis, is an abnormally sensitive, artistic and bright 11-year-old girl who has not spoken a word in nine months.
Isabelle’s parents, Wilson and Ruth, are at their wits’ end as the month of December begins. The psychologists to whom they’ve sent their daughter Isabelle have not been able to diagnose the cause of her silence. Wilson and Ruth spend their days, whether in their spacious city apartment or cozy weekend cottage, obsessed with Isabelle’s condition. Ruth, who feels she’s failed as a mother, has closed her law practice to care for Isabelle, while Wilson, an unusually devoted husband and father, displays the kind of patience found only in fiction. Despite small quirks the two are almost too perfect to generate empathy, but they are believably distraught when the principal of Isabelle’s private school, which she has not physically attended since she stopped talking the previous February, decrees that Isabelle must return. Ruth fixates on Isabelle’s art as the key to curing her while Wilson obsesses about a family trip to Africa. Meanwhile, Isabelle draws with precocious talent, secretly learns to play Beethoven on the piano and observes her parents with a mixture of anger and love. Isabelle’s relationship to speech is like an anorexic’s toward food—and actually food looms large in her unspoken yearnings. As Christmas approaches, tensions in the household mount. Isabelle’s beloved dog is diagnosed with cancer. Ruth shows Isabelle’s drawings to her shrink without permission. Ruth’s problematic, possibly schizophrenic brother visits. After the careful, delicately calibrated accretion of detail about Isabelle and her parents, the ending feels disappointingly manufactured and a bit sentimental. Winthrop, who grew up in New York before attending Harvard, where she graduated in 2001, displays an intimate, sometimes excruciatingly obsessive understanding of Isabelle’s privileged Manhattan upbringing.
A surfeit of elitist sensitivity undermines the novel’s genuine intelligence and sensory delights.