- The Washington Times - Friday, July 1, 2011

GAMES TO PLAY AFTER DARK
By Sarah Gardner Borden
Vintage Books, $14.94, 336 pages

”Games to Play After Dark” opens with a scene that deserves to become a classic. Kate and her friend Darcy are giving a party in their Manhattan apartment. They spend the afternoon buying a ham and other lovely things from Balducci’s, they go home, put the stuff away, get themselves ready for the party, and then Darcy starts cooking from the “The Union Square Cookbook.”

On her menu she has Roman-style marinated olives and bruschetta; parsnip pancakes garnished with sour cream; creamy polenta with mascarpone; red oak-leaf and bibb salad with Gruyere, garlic croutons and Dijon vinaigrette; stuffed chicken breasts with herbed goat cheese; and more. Readers who cook will find their jaws dropping. At last sighting, the ham is being lugged into the bathroom by tipsy guests who want to weigh it on the digital scale.

Darcy’s spirit weakens when her boyfriend doesn’t show, and it totally fails when a jar overturns and “dozens of tiny peppercorns leaped onto the linoleum floor, where they jumped joyfully for a full minute.” Kate feeds Darcy a Valium while peeling the turnips for mashed turnips with frizzled leeks and trying to unblock the sink with a wooden spoon. Just when she needs a knight in shining armor, an unknown guest named Colin rescues her by unclogging the drain and, pretty soon thereafter, taking her to bed.

Author Sarah Gardner Borden handles this episode wonderfully. Bacchanalian bubbles briefly float and pop, but the scene never entirely tips into farce. The party is always a realistic young persons’ bash going wildly wrong - hilariously so to all except the hosts. No permanent damage is done, except to Kate and Colin. After months of happy and sexy romance, Colin proposes. She feels she’s “suddenly landed a starring role in her own life.” As she tells Colin, “I didn’t even realize I wanted to get married … But I do! I want to see you every day. I want a pink bathroom and a mirror at the end of the bed. And an Oriental rug in the living room. And a really nice fridge. I want to make birthday cake. And babies. I want to have a happy family. That’s it. That’s my dream.”

Like the dinner party, this dream sounds wonderful, but it gradually self-destructs. It’s not that Kate’s idea of married life is too ambitious but that she’s not capable of pulling it off, and her marriage spirals toward disaster. On the surface, this is a common enough tale of the nice young couple who marry, have babies, live in the burbs, get harried and busy and bored and eventually want out of it all.

Ms. Borden does not so much make this story new as tell it in high-definition detail. The focus is sharp, the scenes vivid, whether she’s presenting a vignette from early married life, such as eating pizza and watching movies, or describing the birth of Kate’s daughter or recording her infuriating task of getting her two tired little girls, Lila and Robin, back home from school with all their boots and backpacks and lunchboxes and artwork intact. Ms. Borden is particularly adept at recording what it’s like to take care of small children.

Kate wonders, “How much longer could she continue, could she stand it: the serving, the directing, the resulting absurd sense of abuse, the constant tiny negotiations of space? On the landing as Kate dropped the stuff and bent to collect her keys from her purse, Robin kicked her in the behind.” Of course, the result is a timeout and then a reconciliation. But it’s a truce, not a victory.

Notably, Kate’s difficulties as a mother and a wife are not ascribed to frustration over an abandoned career or any strongly felt wish to pursue any different way of life. They partly inhere in the territory: Tiny children are notoriously skilled at trying the patience of a saint. But more significantly in Kate’s case, her difficulties spring from the dynamics of her relationships.

The story of her life with Colin and her daughters develops in tandem with flashbacks to her life as a child growing up in New Haven, Conn., where her father was a professor at Yale. Kate was close to him, loved him, deferred to him. He taught her a lot: from mnemonics for remembering the order of the planets and the digits of pi to how to ride a bike then how to drive a car. But as she grows older, she understands that he needs to have her “Dodge the domestic … and remain purposeful and chaste. Anything less will hurt him … Anything less will betray them both.”

Certainly he betrays her faith in him, and while Colin does not, she is conditioned nonetheless to understand that he, too, needs her to defer to him - for his sake, but for hers too. The careful crafting of this story, the diligent attention to detail and the intelligent sense of the complexities of the closest of family relationships make “Games to Play After Dark” an astonishingly mature achievement for a first-time novelist. It’s a book that bears rereading and thinking about, and Sarah Gardner Borden is certainly one of the new writers to watch.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.