MUSEUM PIECES by Elizabeth Tallent


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Separations, divorces, and new love affairs in Sante Fe, New Mexico--in a warm, stylish, yet amorphous first novel by the author of an uneven 1983 story-collection, In Constant Flight. Tallent begins strongly here, focusing in close on twelve-year-old Tara Wu-Barnes, who's having trouble adjusting to the recent separation of her parents: museum archaeologist Peter--now sleeping on a mattress in the museum basement--and artist Clarissa. Tara dourly compares notes with pretty best-friend Nat, a chipper veteran of the separation scene; she spends a weekend with Peter, camping out on the land he's just bought; she fantasizes about a romance with Nat's older brother. And when Tara is center-stage, or when her parents are musing on the new textures of post-marriage life, the writing is more impressive and expansive than in any of Tallent's stories--with tellingly selected details, perfectly tuned dialogue, and unforced imagery. Very soon, however, as the novel begins to powder into a blurred series of stories, Tallent adds concentric circles of additional characters, moving further and further away from the central triangle: Peter begins an affair with dance-company assistant Mia, who muses at length on her divorce; Clarissa breaks off her affair with a weepy young man (""What will this do to her daughter, to see her mother's lover crying at the Kitchen table?""); Nat's mother decides to remarry; mildly satiric vignettes offer therapist-in-the-hot-tub chatter and bitchy dance-company bickering. And even when these sidetrips are credible and relevant (e.g., Clarissa's memories of her parents), Tallent fails to make them an active part of a narrative core--while her fine-tooled descriptions (of a pat of butter, of oral sex) begin to seem arbitrary, self-indulgent. Promising work, then, with little of the preciousness that marred In Constant Flight--but more a bland socio-sexual collage than a full-fledged family novel. (One is repeatedly reminded of Raymond Carver--who treats such slight materials with ever-increasing assurance, who wisely sticks to the short-story form.)

Pub Date: April 1st, 1985
Publisher: Knopf