Equal Affections is David Leavitt’s third book—his career is just beginning—but one reviewer has already dubbed him “the poet of the New American Family.” That is a particularly significant tribute to this young writer, for many of his fictional families, from his highly praised collection of short stories, Family Dancing (1984), through his first novel, The Lost Language of Cranes (1986), and now his second, Equal Affections, includes homosexuals as main characters. Although his body of work to date is not large, Leavitt has already contributed an integrative quality to contemporary American fiction; he focuses not only on what is best encompassed in the term “alternative lifestyles” but also on that most complex and universal web of human relationships—the family.
Like his other works, Equal Affections shows Leavitt’s surprising strength in depicting older women characters. Just as the most interesting character in The Lost Language of Cranes was Rose Benjamin, whose husband and son are both gay, so Louise Cooper is the most intriguing character in Equal Affections. Louise suffers from cancer of the lymphatic system. She is diagnosed with it when she is forty-four years old, but such is the lingering nature of the disease that over the course of some twenty years it seems to become a member of the family. As Leavitt observes so accurately, the illness moves into the Cooper household “like an elderly aunt in a back bedroom.” A private temporal landmark for each member of the family, the illness becomes the punctuating force for family relationships and provides the structure of the plot.
The periodic bouts of pain drown out other forms of suffering in Louise’s life. Her husband, Nat, pale, bony, bearded, a computer nerd before either the profession or the insult became ubiquitous, has fallen behind the times in his field and is a joke among his younger colleagues at the university in California where he teaches. The only one who takes him seriously, a graduate student in the history of science, becomes his mistress. Louise knows that she can manipulate him never to leave her because of her cancer, though keeping him hardly assuages her loneliness and neediness. Pondering the popular notion that the subconscious can will illness into being, she concludes that “pain was worse than sadness” and that she would gladly divorce Nat if she could also divorce herself from her painful skin.
Other family members treat Louise with care and affection but are still sources of vague disappointment. Both of Louise’s children are homosexual, a fact that she and her husband accept with “hopeful resignation.” Her daughter, April, goes through so many trendy phases that she becomes a walking cliche: She forms a singing duo with her boyfriend, realizes that she is a lesbian, achieves moderate fame as a musician, and agrees to have a baby with a gay man, using the turkey-baster method. Danny, nine years younger, tags along with his famous sister on her singing tours until he meets and falls in love with Walter Bayles in New Haven, Connecticut, and becomes a lawyer, making his home at the other end of the country from his mother. Eleanor, the sister Louise had to nurse through polio as a child, though in all respects less favored than Louise, has the audacity to lead a more contented life. Louise herself remains a detached, vaguely dissatisfied woman whose capacity for happiness seems to have been stifled even before the onslaught of cancer.
The mystery of her life preoccupies her family, especially after her death. Nat remembers the days when, bold and ambitious at nineteen, she ran away from her family in Massachusetts to the University of Alabama, where she impulsively married the only other Jewish person in the place, Solomon Bloch, and then promptly divorced him. Nat can only conclude that something happened to Louise, before the cancer, or that she was genetically unable to be happy. Danny asks his sister if their mother really did have a terrible life; April responds that she did.
As grim as this brief synopsis may sound, the tone of...
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