Summer reading

Posted: Jun 13, 2003 12:00 AM

Reading Danielle Crittenden's new novel amanda bright@home  [read review] brings to mind a riposte Bill Buckley once published to a particularly nasty correspondent. A reader had sent him a long screed about how terrible she thought he looked on TV (there's no accounting for taste), and he had responded, "Dear Ms. ----, If, on top of everything else, I were good looking, wouldn't it be just too much?"

Danielle Crittenden has already written a wise and funny nonfiction critique of feminism called What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us [read review].  But fiction writing is a wholly different art -- plot, character development, imagery -- can she do all that?

Oh yeah, she can. Amanda Bright is a typical young woman of the feminist era. She is liberal, pro-abortion and career-oriented -- and utterly unprepared for the challenge of motherhood. Following the birth of her first child, Ben, she returns to work at the National Endowment for the Arts, and deposits him in daycare.

"She and Bob would drop off Ben every morning at 7:30, at a day care center in a local church basement. She chose this center because of the women who worked there, silvery-haired church matrons whose voices never lost their soothing lilt as they pried Ben's fingernails from her calves. ... Amanda could hear Ben's cries from the parking lot. ... When the scenes didn't improve, Amanda, at the church ladies' insistence, ceased to accompany Ben inside. Bob took him in while she waited in the car with the windows rolled up and the radio switched on."

It is more than Amanda can take. And so despite the disgust of her trailblazing feminist mother, she decides to stay at home after her next child is born.

Still, unlike a college friend who has embraced family life and produced a happy brood of four children, Amanda is torn and confused. She adores her children, but he cannot bear to think of herself as just a mother. She insists upon her maiden name as if it were a title, and does a lousy job of housekeeping and cooking as if to proclaim, "This is not my identity."

Meanwhile, her friend Susie provides counterpoint. Suzie is a glamorous Washington, D.C., pundette with her own TV show and a procession of wealthy if inappropriate suitors. "How could anyone sustain faith in love when every affair ended in a cold exchange of house keys, borrowed books and spent passion? How much of herself would Susie still have to give after she had bestowed so much upon other people? The problem with Susie, Amanda thought ... was that she used her beauty the way an increasingly desperate gambler plays his dwindling stack of chips. The longer Susie stayed at the table, the greater her need for a big payoff."

Amanda's attempts to navigate among the cultural currents of modern America provide abundant comedy. There is the pre-school teacher who announces that "this year the children will receive a minimum of 30 minutes of homework per evening -- this will prepare them for the increased workload they will face in kindergarten" and the school administrator who treats 4-year-old Ben as a serious criminal for the offense of "waving" a peanut-butter cookie under another child's nose -- though there was not a single child in the class with a peanut allergy.

Amanda's husband has his head turned by professional success (he's a justice department lawyer suing Microsoft, er, Megabyte), until Amanda's inadvertent comment to a Washington Post reporter lands him in the center of an escalating scandal. The novel takes on aspects of a roman a clef here, and it's become a bit of Washington parlor game to guess who's who. One TV pugilist is described this way: "His fat jowls, mesmerizing comb-over, and belligerent why-is-everyone-but-me-so-stupid attitude would have disqualified him from any other on-air job in the country." So many possible candidates leap to mind.

Amanda's turning point arrives in an argument with her annoying mother. But several more plot twists intervene before our heroine at last finds her best self. This novel is funny and touching and true, and you won't be able to put it down.