SEPARATE CHECKS by Marianne Wiggins


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The story we have here is someone who is not in real good mental health being told she should write things down so she'll get better. . . . I'm this someone that they're telling. My name is Ellery."" So begins this talented, uneven, unshapely collection of memoirs and family stories--all supposedly written by Ellery McQueen, 33, living in a psychiatric clinic after a breakdown. A sardonic opening piece sketches in Ellery's all-female extended family, eccentric and oppressive: her late mother Mavis, famous mystery-writer and ""a substance of amazing grace""; legendary ""Grammar""; assorted high-power aunts and cousins. That's followed by Ellery's recollection of a recent, bitchy, six-cousin Manhattan lunch--at which glamorous Scooter announced her engagement to an empty, pretty narcissist. Next come brief, stylized tales about cousin Millie (who's cheating on her husband) and cousin Faye, 48, who ""looks like a Blackglama ad, the one w/ Myrna Loy""--but who became ""the saddest woman on earth that I know"" with her son's death and her husband's infidelities. (Irritatingly, Ellery writes ""w/"" for ""with"" throughout--a meaningless mannerism.) And then, after a short vignette about hateful group therapy at the clinic, Ellery offers a moderately involving 120-page novella about her dead cousin Belle, ""a good girl, a wholesome, decent product of her nation except in choosing the one man whom she should love."" Belle is the daughter of famous-painter Max and remarried Willa; unloved, she runs away at 15 (circa 1933), meeting famous-writer Kit and sinning priest Jack on her way to N.Y.; after a brief spell with her decadent stepma in Manhattan, she becomes Kit's adoring common-law wife--suffering through abortions and Kit's infidelities. . . until shooting him dead in 1956. And a headline-grabbing trial ends in conviction, life imprisonment, suicide. Presumably, these fictional treatments of family history (three more short ones follow) have a therapeutic effect on Ellery--who is released from the clinic in time for Scooter's wedding at the end of the novel. Unfortunately, however, Wiggins (Went South, 1980) doesn't develop this notion: Ellery's own psychic troubles are sketchy, overshadowed by the family digressions. So what remains is a spirited, unselective assemblage of pieces in the crazy-family genre--most of them vividly written (cutting dialogue, sharp imagery), a few of them bitterly funny--but without the control to shape them into a satisfying novel.

Pub Date: March 30th, 1984
Publisher: Random House