"Ordinary Love" and "Good Will"

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

The two novellas in this volume have much in common. Both are told in the first person and largely in the present tense, narrative modes widely used during the 1980’s in short fiction. Both are concerned with families in crisis; in both, women and children are victimized by powerful, brilliant, yet spiritually deficient men. Nevertheless, they are distinct works of art. The significant action of Ordinary Love has all occurred in the past; this is a story of revelation, of the weight of the past bearing down on the present, rather in the manner of the fiction of Henry James. The action of Good Will, on the other hand, all takes place in the present, unfolding from moment to moment. The former might be thought of as a long short story, the latter as a short novel. Both are beautifully crafted: Ordinary Love solidly successful, Good Will memorably so.

As Ordinary Love opens, Rachel Kinsella, the fifty- two-year-old narrator, is cleaning her house in anticipation of a reunion. The setting—a small Midwestern town, a big old house with chestnut trees and a garden—seems idyllic, exemplifying a fundamental American dream. Within a few pages, however, appears the first clue that all is not quite right: Joe, the narrator’s twenty-five-year-old son, has been living with her all summer because of a breakup with his girlfriend, a loss which devastated him. Rachel herself, who makes a comfortable living as an accountant for the state, was divorced when the oldest of her five children was ten, and has never remarried. The theme that begins to be developed here—paradise lost or revealed as illusory, not as a result of the encroachment of an outside force but because of some inner lack—is also profoundly American. Rachel lives in a house she loves and gets along well with the four of her children who live near enough to see or call. It is the arrival of the fifth—Joe’s identical twin brother Michael, who for the past two years has been teaching in India—which sparks the crisis. “There are things we can do in our family,” Rachel remarks “—eat peacefully, lend money, confide—but reunions are fraught with echoes.”

When Michael arrives, “he is not Joe’s twin, but a shadow of Joe, dressed all in white cotton and cadaverous.” The sense of loss is immediate: “We have gotten back less than we sent out.” In fact, Michael is suffering from amebic dysentery. In Rachel and her former husband, the inner failings were moral and spiritual, echoed here and throughout the story by a physical illness.

Woven through the events of the next day or two—a picnic, a dinner with Rachel’s oldest daughter Ellen and her family—are Rachel’s reminiscences. Here is revealed the cause of her divorce: She had an affair with a writer who lived down the road, of which she informed her husband; he in turn knocked her down, sold the house without telling her, and took the children off to England. Meanwhile, within a week after her husband left, the man with whom she had the affair stopped talking to her. Her goals at that point were to get a “professional degree and a good job,” and to gain “at least partial custody of at least some of [hen children.” In these she succeeded: with the children because their father, a pediatrician with an international reputation for his research, was too absorbed in his own affairs to pay steady attention to them, so that over the years, as it suited his convenience, they drifted back into her life. Superficially, therefore, she has put her life back together, but she has never let herself become seriously involved with another man, and there remains a crucial piece of unfinished business: She has never explained to the children the circumstances of her divorce, thus depriving them of essential information about their own early lives.

Her confession—at night, on the deck behind her daughter’s house—provokes revelations in turn from her children, and teaches her what her rash behavior did to them. Ellen tells how, when they were with their father in London, he went away and left them alone for a week—having given them the impression that he would be gone for no longer than a day or two—and returned, after a nightmarish time for the children, only as a car from a children’s home was arriving to take them away. This leads to further reminiscences: from Joe, for example, of “how he used to smack us and then say that we had just run into his fist.” Finally Michael tells a story of his own recent past: that in India he had been engaged to a woman whom he loved, but had an obsessive affair with an older, married woman, leading to an abortion and the destruction of his relationship. Soon, he says, he will be going away again—to teach in Korea, where he may very well remain. Rachel is now left to contemplate “the history of my children in my absence, at the mercy of their father. Didn’t I know he was like this, unrestrained and blind to the consequences of his own actions? His enthusiasm for family life was the passion, I see now, of a true egomaniac, whose wife and children and dogs are the limbs of his own body.” Her bleak conclusion is that she has given her children “the two cruelest gifts I had to give . . the experience of perfect family happiness, and the certain knowledge that it could not last.”

Out of this compellingly detailed narrative a number of themes emerge. Most strikingly, Ordinary Love is a feminist story. Rachel tells of a cousin who in the early years of the century ran away from her husband: He “was prosperous and sober, and didn’t beat her, so it was obvious to everyone that she must be insane for leaving him. They brought her back and put her in a state mental hospital.” Rachel’s is essentially the same story brought up to date: No one can understand her need to be free of “that grating supervision, the constant call for my attention and response.” She is left...

(The entire section is 2434 words.)