Bad Things Happen, Then it Gets Worse

Review of The Ragged Way People Fall Out Of Love By Joyce Slater
Chicago Tribune, February 28, 1991

Book reviewers have used the phrase "I couldn't put it down" so often and so carelessly that the words have almost lost their meaning. But I must use a variation on that hackneyed comment when talking about Elizabeth Cox's slender second novel, "The Ragged Way People Fall Out of Love."

I could and did put it down. More than a dozen times in the course of this novella-length story about the atrophy of a marriage, I stumbled on a passage insightful enough or moving enough to make me want to stop and absorb it. In an age of mindless, bulky page-turners, this was a rare and welcome experience.

Contemporary novels and films are preoccupied, almost obsessed, with the pain of divorce. If you think there's nothing fresh to say about married people who wake up one day and discover they don't want to be married anymore, think again. Better yet, read Elizabeth Cox.

"The Ragged Way People Fall Out of Love" is particularly touching because of the author's stubborn refusal to place blame and assign guilt. Nobody in the Hanner family wears a black hat, or a white one either. You will like every one of them; you will hurt all the more when things fall apart.

Molly Hanner is an artist living in North Carolina. She has loved her husband, Will, since she was 16. They've been married for almost two decades and have three children. Molly cannot imagine ever loving another man, but she has been feeling a void, a slippage: "During the past year they had been waking at night, both of them, as though an end were coming, as though they expected it to come in the night and surprise them. They didn't yet realize the ragged way people fall out of love and how it is never completely done."

"I don't love you anymore," William tells Molly one Sunday morning in their den. After that flat, five-word announcement, Molly's world seems to spin off its axis.

We all know by now that bad things happen to good people. The sad corollary to this particular Murphy's Law is that worse things are apt to follow in their wake. That's what happens to Molly and William.

Seeking order in a world that looks askew, Molly enrolls in an astronomy course only to find more confusion when she's sexually attracted to her professor. She frets about the emotional and physical decline of her widower father; she gropes for the right words to explain the divorce to the children. In a note she writes to herself during an astronomy class, she tries to relate the concept of "aberrations of light" to the inconsistencies of her current life.

Cox's portrayal of the Hanner children is particulary skillful and endearing. In the end, a crisis situation with Joe, the eldest, forces all in the family to rethink their priorities.

While it's true that the author probably didn't need subplots involving madmen, foster children and tornados, and while it's true that this reader would like to have known more about a cipher named Carol, who is cited as the reason for the breakup, only a mean-spirited critic would second-guess a story as richly rewarding as this one.

"A sensory projection and rich, impassive strength," says an art dealer of one of Molly's paintings. "Your images do not fade under scrutiny." The same might be said of Elizabeth Cox.

© Chicago Tribune, 1991