The audience awaiting Oprah's picks will want to know about this highly touted first novel about three generations of women in a painfully bonded southern California family.
The story’s central actions occur on a single day, when middle-aged Marlene (`Lena`), a retarded adult who has matter-of-factly set a fire in her room in a residential home,` escapes` to a nearby beach for a day's outing with her 12-year-old niece Shelley. It's left (as it has so often been) to Lena's widowed mother, Ella Rose, to clean up the mess and make the apologies—and to take refuge in extended memories of her own girlhood (as part of a Russian-American Boston-area family), marriage, and embattled motherhood, attempting to raise, and keep peace between, the unpredictable Lena and Lena's younger sister (Shelley's mother) Vivien. These comprise a heartbreaking story of loneliness assuaged by Ella's happy marriage (to Lou, a gentle shoe-store owner who genuinely adores her), then replaced by a deeper sorrow as Ella accepts the burdens of managing Lena's fragile emotional life, even steering her through marriage (to the likewise retarded Bob), then being there—forever, if necessary, and bereft of her own comforts, as caring for Lena pulls Ella ever further away from the others she loves. With perfect pacing and tact, Bender shows us how the `games` Lena plays with the fascinated Shelley (a Carson McCullers–derived waif, much too thinly drawn) ironically recapitulate the disillusionments both Lena and Ella have suffered, in their efforts to be `like normal people.` The characterization of Lena is superb: she has more than enough intelligence to understand how `different` she is, be grateful and grieve for having loved Bob and then lost him, and realize how much of `normal` life will remain always beyond her reach.
Beautifully done. Bender has a remarkable gift for showing how the security of family interrelationship warms, chafes, imprisons, and ultimately liberates.