Like Normal People

Karen E. Bender, Author
Karen E. Bender, Author Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) $23 (288p) ISBN 978-0-395-94515-5
Reviewed on: 04/17/2000
Release date: 04/01/2000
Hardcover - 384 pages - 978-0-7838-9301-3
Paperback - 288 pages - 978-0-618-12692-7
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Some first novelists arrive on the literary scene already so proficient it's hard to believe that we are reading their debut effort. This is true of Bender, whose remarkable narrative of three generations of women has the wisdom of mature insight and the grace of empathy and understanding. Bender sets the scene, establishes salient relationships and indicates the personalities of her protagonists in the first few pages, in a marvel of economy and poetic prose. In the space of one day in 1978, with layers of flashbacks, California widow Ella Rose will persist in her four-decades-long attempt to micromanage the life of her retarded 45-year-old daughter, Lena; Ella's granddaughter, 12-year-old Shelley, will succumb to Lena's capricious personality and elude the protective custody of family and caretakers for a flight into the unknown; and Vivien, Ella's second daughter, will assume a new level of responsibility. From the moment she understood that her firstborn daughter was not ""normal,"" Ella has made Lena the center of her life, devoting herself to protecting Lena from the disasters that might befall a headstrong but childlike and vulnerable young woman. Despite her mother's misgivings, Lena at 34 marries 42-year-old Bob, a driver for Good Will whose mental development is comparable to hers, as are his sexual needs. For Ella, the marriage is a new responsibility, and she continues to monitor the couple's daily lives. Meanwhile, preadolescent Shelley, na ve for her age, is shunned by her more sophisticated friends, and in her fear that she is not a ""normal person,"" begins to develop a phobic habit. Shelley, Lena and Bob, all equally limited in their understanding of the world but eager for experience, encounter tragedy, which Lena cannot comprehend and Shelley cannot move beyond. Bender captivates readers with a freshness of observation and arresting imagery. A surreal scene of an ""anniversary party"" under a beach pier is a model of poignant irony. Bender's subtle humor, her understanding of a parent's need to offer protective love and her tolerant view of human nature infuse the story with universality. In the end, this heartwarming novel dealing with societal misfits, family relationships and loss is about all flawed human beings, ""normal"" and not. Agent, Eric Simonoff. First serial to the New Yorker; rights sold in the U.K. (Apr.)
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