- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 17, 2008


By Ursula Hegi

Touchstone Books (Simon & Schuster), $25, 260 pages


This is a troubling book. For starters, there are six major characters, five living and one dead, and they take turns telling their stories, which at times gives the novel the feel of a juggling act. It’s also troubling because there’s so much going on, and so very much of it is sad or depressing or both.

And, finally, it’s troubling because the author, who is obviously a talented and unusually sensitive writer, has chosen to tell her rather implausible story in a manner that teases the reader. Other than that, it’s quite good.

Here’s the story line: In the beginning there were two young women from Germany, Lotte and “Stormy,” who met in Southhampton, on the East End of Long Island, where both had come to work as au pairs. Strangers in a strange land, they became what they called sisters-by-choice, a term that ironically foreshadows what happens more than 20 years later to provide the central drama of the narrative.

Lotte marries and gives birth to Annabelle, a beautiful little girl who grows up as the best friend of two boys, the even more beautiful and very mercurial Mason and the steady-as-a-rock Jake. They’re an inseparable trio, especially in the long, languid summers, but at 19 Annie marries Mason, not Jake. At the reception, Annie’s parents are almost as happy as their daughter because, after 19 years, Lotte is pregnant again, and very near term.

And then, as Annie explains, “On the drive home from the wedding reception, a truck jackknifed into my parents’ Honda, swatting them aside, killing my father. My mother lived just long enough to have my sister cut from her in the incubator.”

Annie and Mason, both of whom have a year left at the University of New Hampshire, take on the job of raising Opal, with lots of help from Jake, not to mention Aunt Stormy, her boy friend Pete, and a handful of others. The task of trying to be the instant parents of an infant sibling would be hard enough for a couple with a few years under their marital belt, but for a pair of newlyweds and an extra surrogate father, it teeters on the edge of impossible.

And so the odd make-up of this family-not-by-choice soon devolves into four-part disharmony, thanks mainly to Mason’s toxic jealousy.

We do not learn all of this sequentially, in novelistic real time, but through a series of randomly inserted flashbacks. The book (and the troubling) begins with Annie driving — and driving and driving and driving — up and down the East End, late at night, eating junk food and listening to a pair of radio shrinks, one harsh and bossy, the other emphatic and kindly.

It’s Annie’s way of trying to come to grips with Mason’s suicide, an act made even worse by the fact that he hung himself by stepping off her work table in the barn where she made her collages, a work area built so lovingly for her by the combined efforts of her husband, Mason, and their mutual best friend, Jake.

The collages tell the story too, especially those she has titled the Raft series. “Raft/1 was inspired by what Annie saw that summer afternoon, the boys merging in the center of the raft, a huddle of arms and legs arching toward the edge with immeasurable grace, a grace that embarrassed them when she showed them the collage.

“So far, she has 11 raft collages. Train Series she completed in two years. Pond Series in four. Most of her collages are not part of a series; but the Raft Series has tugged at her for more than half her life now, and each collage has revealed more than she believed she knew.”

The reader is not given the answer to that puzzle until almost the end of the book, but in the very first chapter the author clearly suggests that at age 13 she may have witnessed her two best friends in the world in homosexual activity. Throughout the book, she returns to sound that note. Were they or weren’t they, did they or didn’t they?

But that’s not the only troubling question with which Ms. Hegi teases the reader. There’s also Mason’s relentless attempts — introduced in the second chapter — to push Annie, first as his girlfriend and then as his wife, into having sex with Jake. Will they, won’t they, have they, haven’t they? For me, it was troubling to the point of annoyance.

That’s the background. In the foreground, there’s the day to day problem of one sister attempting to raise the other sister, both of them orphans. Ursula Hegi does this beautifully. As she has demonstrated over and over again, in book after book (this is her 11th in a career that has spanned more than 25 years) and especially in Stones from the River, a selection of the Oprah book club, she knows the human heart and what it can endure, especially on the sorrow side of the ledger.

She also knows human relationships, and she shows, with great artistry, how, from the very beginning, the signs given off by Jake and Annie and Mason — Mason in particular — gave warning of what was to come. In Mason, Ms. Hegi has created a marvelously complicated character, as a boy as well as a man. When Mason was still in elementary school, Aunt Stormy told Annie’s mother, “‘That neighbor boy will be sexy trouble someday. Such wildness and beauty.’”

At the end, Annie, strong character that she is, has not just endured, she has laid Mason’s ghost to rest and found a measure of happiness. Just the way things happen in real life, every once in a great while.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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