An episodic first novel of divorce, motherhood, and coming-of-age in Manhattan of the 1970s and ’80s, by the author of the story collection Out of the Girls’ Room and Into the Night (1999).
Born-and-bred New Yorker Roz Rosenzweig marries midwestern Edwin Anderson, because she’s tired of being single and can’t believe how nice he is. But after the birth of their daughter Miranda and the death of Roz’s mother, their many differences cause the marriage to founder. “The Mess Under the Bed,” a chapter composed of letters to Miranda at camp, Miranda’s letters home, and camper reports, deftly depicts the family’s strife.(Nissen has an instinct for coupling sorrow and humor.) Edwin gone, 12-year-old Miranda finds a surrogate dad in an older boy who gives her piggyback rides and her first drink. Miranda is well-drawn; the feisty child and mixed-up preadolescent grow into a wily, first-in-the-bunk-to-have-sex teenager. Sometimes the wry here tone seems to breeze over this often disheartening account of the aftermath of divorce. There’s a comical quality to the scenario of Roz falling in love with Miranda’s orthodontist and moving in with him, only to have Miranda respond by having a furtive affair with Ben, the orthodontist’s son. But when Miranda and Ben learn that his father is carrying on his own clandestine affair, Nissen captures precisely the terrible feelings of these two teenagers who are still children but behaving like adults. After the orthodontist moves out, however, the story flags: Roz takes in boarders with their own problems, and Miranda has a disastrous affair with a teacher. At the close, she’s home from college for a potentially awkward Thanksgiving with Roz’s New Age boyfriend. But what’s important, Miranda realizes, is that she and her mother are still together: they have survived her childhood.
A mostly satisfying rendition of the complex mother-daughter relationship, told with edgy humor and deep sympathy.