A second outing by astute cultural critic Cohen (The Stuff of Dreams, 2001, etc.) discovers a lot of angst in Brooklyn.
From the bleachers of the Prospect School in Brooklyn, high-school junior Ann James kind of falls and kind of jumps, fracturing both heels in late December. Now she needs tutoring in her Brooklyn Heights home from Prospect math teacher Esker (she prefers to go by her last name), a withdrawn immigrant from upstate New York. Ann’s father, Wally, runs the trendy West Village restaurant Game, established with the inheritance of his gone-though-not-ex-wife Alice, who left three years earlier to become an indie movie star. Ann thinks Wally and Esker would be a good match, and one agreeable dinner suggests that that might be so, until Alice interrupts it. But this isn’t a story about romantic rivalry; the author is most interested in Esker’s wounds from a college love affair and a bleak childhood. True, Wally’s perhaps unduly agreeable personality and Ann’s adolescent confusions also get a fair amount of attention, paid in prose sometimes a little too exquisite, like the Christmas presents the James family exchanges: “ . . . very subtle and witty and charming presents, all boasting a certain kind of intimate and hard-won knowledge of one another, all a bit self-congratulatory in their celebration of life” (this is supposedly 16-year-old Ann’s insight). Ann rehearses a nouveau-beatnik dance with best friend Hannah and heartthrob Malcolm while Wally pursues Esker, who’s wrestling the ghost of the lover who left her to marry within his faith. Nothing much happens between the adults, but the school’s headmistress threatens Esker’s job anyway. The downbeat finale chimes with what we’ve seen throughout of Esker’s emotional scars, but it’s hard to feel more than detached empathy for someone so quick to cut herself off from human contact. Ann and Wally are left adrift in the middle of their stories.
Rigorous and accomplished, but it could use some of the warmth that pervades Cohen’s nonfiction.