Bette Pesetsky

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

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"One day it came to me that I was neither adopted nor the illegitimate daughter of the King of Rumania and Magda Lupescu. Everything, of course, has run downhill since then." So begins "Offspring of the First Generation," the eighth of the 15 brief stories in this collection. But the notes sounded here of humor, disillusionment and cheerful resignation in the face of loss are typical of Bette Pesetsky's infectious first work of fiction, "Stories Up to a Point."

For all, or most, of these stories are about middle-aged women whose lives have broken up, whose parents have died or divorced, whose husbands or lovers have left them, or vice versa, whose children have turned out badly, who do not wish to remember anymore, who cannot find anything to remember or who realize that the only continuity that remains is, as the narrator of one story concludes, "All things that happen to everybody will someday happen to my children."

Yet they go on looking desperately for continuity, these women do, and take it wherever they can find it….

In the fifth story, my favorite, "The Hobbyist,"… the narrator searches for continuity by cleaning out her grandparents' apartment, her grandfather having died at 82 and her grandmother having gone to live in Venice, Calif. She discovers her grandfather's lifelong hobby, which "was collecting dust." He would put dust samples in bottles and label them: "The store on Essex Street. 1923." The story of his life is collecting dust. This is a witty play on words, but it's also more. At the end, the narrator's husband tells her, "although I am tolerant, I want that dust out of this house. I'm warning you." The past is dangerous.

But so is the lack of a past. The woman in the first story whose life has "run downhill" since she discovered she was neither adopted nor the offspring of royalty, has "noticed that many people do not like me," not her children, her husband, her lovers or even her analyst…. Since there is no other explanation …, one can only think that the clue to why she's spurned is in the title—the woman is the offspring of immigrants, a fish out of water.

Not all of Bette Pesetsky's verbal tricks are so resonant….

But the best stories, like "The Hobbyist," or "From P Forward," about the loss of magic in growing up, or the title story, in which a father burns all his daughter's belongings and makes his wife swear to be cold to her if she telephones—these have the power to rearrange the space inside one's head with their strong mood of urban paranoia. And what is the point that these stories are "up to"? Sometimes it's that the point is yet to be made. Sometimes it's that it's not worth making. But mostly it's that there simply is no point anymore.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, in a review of "Stories Up to a Point," in The New York Times (copyright © 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 15, 1982, p. 21.

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