New York Times Review 01/11/2010

Books of The Times

The Flowerings of Love Are Not for the Weak

By JANET MASLIN

Published: January 11, 2010

“At 2 o’clock in the morning, no one is to blame,” Amy Bloom writes at the start of her beautifully astute new book. Her narrator is Clare, a middle-aged academic speaking in the present tense.

Clare and her best friend on the faculty, an Englishman named William, are sitting together watching disaster coverage on CNN, the light of the television glinting off their wedding rings as they unexpectedly embrace.

It happens that each of them is married to another person, that the spouses are present, and that the spouses are asleep at 2 a.m., when Clare and William’s union begins. “It does not seem possible,” Clare observes of her new lover, “that we are people with three children, two marriages and a hundred and ten years between us.”

Oh, but it does. Ms. Bloom, who has worked as a psychotherapist as well as a creative writing professor, clearly has great gifts in both those realms. Her 2008 novel, “Away,” was a marvel of concise eloquence and insight, full of artfully executed twists and turns. She writes about characters who are stunning in their verisimilitude but never really predictable in their behavior, and Clare and William quickly emerge as two such figures. Ms. Bloom follows them in sharply cliché-free ways from first embrace deep into guilty pleasure.

This story, “Your Borders, Your Rivers, Your Tiny Villages,” first appeared in Ploughshares in 2002. Then Ms. Bloom wrote further installments about the fallout from this life-changing affair: “I Love to See You Coming, I Hate to See You Go,” published in Tin House in 2004 (with Clare and William meeting furtively midway between their respective homes, deeply entangled yet still imagining that their marriages will not be affected) and “The Old Impossible,” published in Ploughshares in 2006 (with Clare and William still betraying their spouses and not remotely fooling Clare’s sharp-eyed Uncle David). The final installment, “Compassion and Mercy,” turned up in Granta last summer.

Ms. Bloom’s new book also includes another quartet of tales about a different, even more scandalizing twosome named Lionel and Julia. Given the range of both narratives, this work of extravagantly fine fiction cannot really be called a short-story collection. It’s more of a reunion, or a set of successfully completed jigsaw puzzles. Each of the two quartets has been pieced together into a time-traveling novella filled with hindsight and passion and ever-evolving emotions.

This book also includes four free-standing stories that have nothing to do with one another. But even if its format were more commonplace, “Where the God of Love Hangs Out” would still be something special.

Ms. Bloom’s characters are uncommonly fully formed, seldom young, some of them well into old age. Yet they sustain the ability to surprise one another — and themselves. Case in point: Julia, a white woman who has just lost her black husband, a very famous and successful jazz musician, when she first appears in this book, in the story “Sleepwalking.” Julia and “Sleepwalking” date back to 1993, when they appeared in Ms. Bloom’s book “Come to Me,” but they are well worth revisiting.

The story is written without shock value, even as it tells of the single, mortifying night on which Julia and Lionel, who is the 19-year-old son of Julia’s husband from his earlier marriage, expressed their grief in ways that would haunt both of them for the rest of their lives. Ms. Bloom clearly believes that life goes on, no matter what mistakes one makes, until, suddenly, it doesn’t. And she finds it much more useful to make accommodations with reality than to wallow in regret.

As this book follows Julia and Lionel into the future, he grows into a strong, charismatic man. Fifteen years after “Sleepwalking,” Lionel is narrating “Night Vision,” which begins this way: “For 15 years, I saw my stepmother only in my dreams.”

During that interval Julia raised Buster, Lionel’s little brother, who will eventually grow up to become a judge. When Lionel comes home from Paris (where he went not long after the events of the first story), sees Julia again and finds himself calling her “Ma,” the narrative pivots into a phase so different that its characters all but reinvent themselves from scratch.

Lionel will be a suave sophisticate and have many wives. Buster will be more of a homebody and have a daughter of very mixed racial and religious heritage (“You can be blackballed by everyone,” Lionel jokingly tells her). And Julia will have her secret ideas of happiness even as she enters what Ms. Bloom calls “Official Grandmahood.”

As the third Lionel and Julia story, “Light Into Dark,” puts it: “Sweet or sour, spry or athletic, she is now a stock character, as essential and unknown as the maid in a drawing-room comedy.” Known or not, she exerts a strong gravitational pull on all the disparate characters — young, old, black, white, in-between, straight, gay and miscellaneous — who surround her.

There are a lot of losses in “Where the God of Love Hangs Out,” and not just because some of its characters age dramatically. Ms. Bloom is as interested in the forces that rupture bonds as in the ones that, against all odds and sometimes at terrible risk, manage to create them. The subtle, stirring title story ably illustrates Ms. Bloom’s tremendous gift for imagining life as a series of choices, with the paths not taken as vivid as the ones that are.

In that tale, a young woman called Macy, whose real name is not Macy and whose upbringing is nothing like the one she has described to her husband, unintentionally prompts her father-in-law to take her into his confidence. He knows whom he loves, he reveals to Macy. He knows whom he married. These women are not one and the same.

And somehow, without artifice or contrivance, Ms. Bloom changes everything by putting him and Macy in a bar together, watching TV while sharing talk about their pasts. Macy offers what she thinks is a helpful football analogy. Nice thought. But, her father-in-law tells her, there’s really nothing like that in the game.

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