PLAIN GRIEF by Maxine Chernoff


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 Another end-of-a-marriage story: poet Chernoff's first novel circles familiar themes of disintegration and loss without ever fully engaging them. Sarah and Larry Holm are both university teachers in Chicago. Sarah has uncomplainingly endured Larry's affairs with graduate students for so long that she is numb to them; she has concentrated on her classes and on raising Scotty and Carrie, now teenagers. What drives her to attend grief-therapy sessions is not the state of her 16-year-old marriage but the death (heart attack) of her father Stanley, which has depressed her so much she hates to leave the house. Relief is at hand in the form of another therapy patient, Jeremy Bone Shoulder, an Indian social scientist who is ``mourning the fate of his people.'' Soon Sarah has joyously taken her first lover, but this new threat to domestic peace proves too much for 14-year-old Carrie, who just says no to Thanksgiving turkey and hops a Greyhound with visiting cousin Deenie from Santa Monica. Anorexic Deenie (who hatched the scheme) is far more troubled than Carrie, reflecting the California wackiness of her own mÇnage. Chernoff begins her story with the aborted holiday dinner, then crosscuts between the teenagers on the road and their frazzled elders' attempts to recover them, with a climax at the L.A. bus terminal. It's a taut enough structure, but Chernoff consistently subverts it with flashbacks and a swarm of minor characters. Just as damaging is her failure to characterize energetically: Larry is little more than a rampaging libido; Sarah and Jeremy are well-meaning but fuzzy. None of this gives the reader much reason to care about the death of a marriage that had harbored, according to Larry, ``something wrong from the start that he could never name.'' A disappointing debut.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1991
ISBN: 0-671-72463-0
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1991


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