- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 22, 2003


By Stephen Goodwin

Harcourt, $24, 408 pages


The first paragraph of local author Stephen Goodwin’s novel “Breaking Her Fall” describes a scenario that many parents will find uncomfortably plausible. A sweet 14-year-old goes out on a summer evening with her slightly older best friend; they say they plan to see a movie. But instead of a movie, the girls hook up with a group of kids and go to a house where the parents are not home. There they drink beer with vodka shooters, go skinny dipping in the pool and play something called Big Dare. It goes on from there.

When Tucker Jones, the father who narrates this engaging story, gets a phone call from another parent informing him of this behavior and telling him just what act his daughter has performed on a “parade of boys,” he does what many a parent would do. He sets off to find his child and he goes a bit berserk. The book details the fallout — legal, emotional, psychological — from what happens that summer night.

The story has a very contemporary feel. Tucker is a single dad, raising his daughter, Kat, and her brother, Will, after their mother leaves for another man and a glamorous, monied life in New York. He cares for the kids with the help of a Spanish-speaking housekeeper named Gladys and a list of rules posted on the refrigerator (Big Rules like “Don’t complain,” Little Rules such as, if you go to a movie, it can’t be R-rated and you must specify what it is).

Tucker runs a landscaping business, plays drums in a band called the Make Believes and is having a tepid affair that he’s trying, as much as possible, to keep separate from life with his adored kids. Twelve-year-old Will plays his GameBoy compulsively and loves tennis and soccer; Kat is an avid rock climber who spends hours on the phone with her girlfriends, saying things are “cheesy” or “weird.” She makes liberal use of sarcasm, has a friend who wears “ratty jeans with the top section, including the belt loops, cut off,” listens to Eva Cassidy recordings and is alternately funny and aloof. Anyone with a teenage daughter will recognize these and many other of the book’s details as exactly right.

This sense of familiarity is enhanced by the book’s very explicit Washington setting. The Joneses live in the Palisades neighborhood of northwest D.C. and take walks on the Billy Goat Trail; Tucker’s company cares for the lawns of “McMansions” in Potomac; Will attends St. Albans School. On that fateful summer night, Tucker drops Kat and her friend Abby on Connecticut Avenue, “at the corner near Pizzeria Uno.”

Mr. Goodwin is perceptive about the affluent, urban universe he describes. The fundraising auction at a private school is “an evening for wealthy husbands and wives to bask in their own prosperity”; another school is populated by kids who seem “to have gone directly from childhood to a jaded world-weariness.”

Thinking back to his own early sexual experiences, Tucker remembers “the kind of story that just about everyone I ran with in those days, men and women both, could tell … you go out, you meet someone, you have too much to drink, you wake up the next morning and see your clothes on the floor and try to remember how you ended up [there] …” It’s the summer of Bill Clinton’s impeachment and the narrator draws a parallel between happenings in the Oval Office and what the kids did in the pool house. And when there’s trouble, the adults make haste to call in teams of lawyers and psychiatrists.

On the relations between parents and children Mr. Goodwin is particularly observant. Tucker has plenty of rules but admits that he’s more comfortable talking to his kids about them than enforcing them (he says he doesn’t like to “quarrel with my children”). On the way teenage girls dress, he says that “this is the Age of the Midriff and there doesn’t seem to be much that parents can do about it.” His daughter’s use of four-letter words “jolts” Tucker.

When Kat’s best friend becomes pregnant, the girl’s mother tearfully tells Tucker that she knew her daughter was having sex and thought she should be on the Pill, but didn’t do anything about it because she was “afraid” to. She says she’s been a “terrible” mother, but Tucker assures her that it isn’t her fault. He admits to feeling personally rejected when Kat gets into trouble; he can’t help feeling that “everything she had done that night … had been directed at me as a statement of defiance and repudiation.”

This wealth of finely observed, realistic detail is initially entertaining; as the book goes on, though, it becomes wearisome. The constant stream of real names (of the books people read, the cars they drive, the streets they live on, the restaurants where they eat) is tedious. And the fictitious places jar the ear in the midst of so many real ones. (Kat goes from a school called “Byrd-Adams” to one called “Tandem.”) In addition, the reader’s sympathy begins to shift from Tucker, endlessly dissecting his own feelings, to Kat, struggling to understand her conflicting loyalties.

Towards the end of the book, Tucker and Kat are taking a walk on the canal towpath by the Potomac River. Kat has been cutting school; Tucker is trying to use the time to get her to open up and, after a while, she does. It turns out that what she wants to talk about is faith. She’s been to an evangelical church service with Gladys, the housekeeper, and she’s struck by how different it is from the bland, optional religion of her own family. People seem so engaged by it.

What, she asks her father, does he believe? “You’re my dad,” she tells him, “and I don’t have a clue what matters to you. I want to know — what’s important to you? Do you ever think about who we are and what we’re supposed to do with our lives? Who made us and why?” Kat even invites her dad to tell her what she should do with her life, insisting, “Don’t tell me Be happy. That’s too lame. I want to know what you think matters.”

Rather than treat this as a precious invitation to share such wisdom as he has about this world and how to live in it, or even to admit how overwhelming the search for meaning can be, Tucker deflects the question.

He tells Kat that what matters to him is the conversation he and she are having at that very moment, that “this is the way people talk when they love each other and they’re trying to figure things out.” He has no answers for his daughter. Indeed, as Kat astutely points out, he has none for himself.

Mr. Goodwin seems to want to tell a hopeful story of family love and the way that love can heal hurts and overcome difficulties. But instead, the self-indulgent, self-focused parental love he describes so well leaves the reader, like Kat, wanting just a bit more. “Not every story has to have a moral,” Tucker tells his children at the book’s end. “The story is its own moral.” Perhaps. But whether it’s a moral or not, what this story seems to be saying in spite of itself is that, in addition to love, children crave discipline and guidance.

Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.

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