- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 22, 2005

The cover of The Fat Man’s Daughter, a first novel by Caroline Petit (Soho, $24, 273 pages), is an alluring one — a glossy, dark image of a young woman’s face juxtaposed with a small photo of Hong Kong circa 1937. It pulls the reader into the story of 19-year-old Leah Kolbe whose father, the fat man of the title, has recently died under puzzling circumstances leaving her to ponder his death and his legacy.

Leah and Theo had always been quite self sufficient, subtly disdaining the Hong Kong expatriate community where they resided while priding themselves on their knowledge of and love for the Chinese antiquities that were Theo’s livelihood. After his death Leah is almost but not quite alone; she lives with An-li, the Chinese Amah who has raised her since the death of her Russian mother many years before. When An-li suggests a Chinese funeral ceremony in addition to the Western burial planned for Theo, Leah counters that her father “had no beliefs. He devoted himself to antiquities and me.”

At the reception following her father’s burial Leah meets a mysterious man, Mr. Chang, who tries to recruit her for a secret mission to Manchukuo, the Chinese province of Manchuria then under Japanese sovereignty. Leah initially refuses but when, a few weeks later, she discovers that her father’s will has left her essentially broke she reconsiders; soon she and An-li are on a train heading north into wintry Manchuko. When Cezar da Silva, the handsome, shady Eurasian with whom Leah had had a brief romantic encounter, surfaces there appearing to work for the Japanese things become murky; soon they turn dangerous, violent and ugly.

There is good material here, particularly in the amusing evocation of the pretensions and fears of the expatriate community where people “think that the good life of little work, lots of gin and parties, stale gossip and trite affairs will go on forever.” Likewise, the exotic, historically significant setting carries a certain fascination.

But in the end this book is as chilly as Manchurian winter. The legacy from the fat man that Leah ultimately embraces is a sterile one and her adventures are recounted in a dry, staccato style that reminds one of imitation Hemingway as in “Quan grabbed at the girl. Cezar hit Quan hard. Quan fell into the mud and struggled to sit up.”

Novelist and writing teacher Anne Bernays lives in Cambridge, Mass. and in Truro, on Cape Cod and she has set her most recent work, Trophy House (Simon & Schuster, $24, 258 pages), in these familiar places. The book is, in fact, both a lively story and a love letter to Truro — to its physical beauty both in golden summer and in bleak, lonely winter and to the simplicity of life that it seems to encourage.

Dannie Faber, the first person narrator, is an illustrator of children’s books with lots of work, two grown children and an arrangement with her MIT professor husband, Tom. She spends the months from April to November on the Cape while he lives in town (Watertown stands in for Cambridge). He travels a lot to conferences and meetings and commutes out to Truro when he can. Dannie’s marriage rather predictably succumbs to the dangers of such an arrangement when Tom falls for a younger, more available colleague and moves out. Meanwhile, Dannie’s editor, a charming divorced man named David, has been showing an interest in both giving her more work and getting to know her better and soon she is taking the train to New York for meetings about her illustrations and sexy weekends. As background to these developments are Dannie’s concern about an inappropriately huge house that has been built near to her on the Cape and the hate crime it engenders, worries about her daughter, Beth, and recurring ruminations on the impact of September 11 on everyone’s sense of what is important.

Ms. Bernays is an astute reporter of her upper middle class characters and the world they inhabit. The style is breezy and conversational, liberally salted with four letter words, brand names (L.L.Bean, priceline.com, WGBH radio and many more) and political asides (George Bush is “instinctively wrong-headed, mean-spirited and sometimes tyrannical.”). The serious issues hinted at — insecurities engendered by terrorism, the tug of war between wanting to be alone and the need for sustaining relationships, the importance of place — are real and interesting ones. But when Dannie comments that she “feels like a Meg Ryan character — assailable, slightly addled,” the reader, unfortunately, has to agree. A Meg Ryan character is exactly what this book suggests; the tone is light and the serious subtext never develops. It’s just too cute.

Love, Work, Children by Cheryl Mendelson (Random House, $25.95, 356 pages), a sequel to her well-received “Morningside Heights,” is an insightful comedy of manners about a vivid cast of characters on the upper west side of New York City. You don’t have to have read the first book to be easily drawn into this bemused look at family relationships, intellectual posturing and the career and amorous quandaries of characters both young and in mid-life.

At the center is Peter Frankl, a wealthy 60-year-old lawyer universally recognized as a “really nice guy.” Despite his success, though, Peter has two significant sources of dissatisfaction — his marriage to an attractive but shallow artist named Lesley and his job with a prestigious firm doing work he dismisses as unimportant. The slight sense of failure he feels about his children, a son and a daughter, both 30-something, unmarried and mildly unhappy, nags at him as well. But when Lesley is seriously injured in an automobile accident and goes into a coma, things start to change. The real pleasure of “Love, Work, Children” is not the plot which, though it moves along briskly with some unexpected twists and a few hilarious scenes, gets tied up at the end much too neatly. Rather, the satisfaction here is in subtly drawn portraits of multifaceted characters many of which have moral selves rather than just personalities.

Peter’s daughter, Susan, has a moment of clarity about her dreadful boyfriend, Chris, when she realizes that he doesn’t care whether she has lied to him or not. “He should believe in her innocence. But, granted that he didn’t, then he should demand, or at least want, remorse and repentance from her. Chris didn’t care whether she was good or not … . Susan found this incomprehensible.” Later, when she goes out on a date despite her commitment to Chris, Susan decides to “take a moral holiday … [she] refused to let guilt ruin the pleasures of the evening.”

When Peter finds his situation with Lesley unbearable he talks it over not with a therapist but with a rabbi, an old friend of his father’s who advises him to be kind to Lesley if and when she wakes from her coma and to “find a nice, middle-aged woman to be friends with.” The rabbi says Peter is trying to do what God wants even though he does not, in fact, believe in God. It is an astute observation. Even in the post-religious milieu they inhabit, many of these characters long for validation beyond what can be imparted by psychology and a permissive culture. Despite the lightness of its tone this is a book of refreshing seriousness.

Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.

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