Journey to the End of a Marriage

Review of The Ragged Way People Fall Out Of Love By Richard Bausch
The Washington Post, April 21, 1991

Elizabeth Cox's second novel opens with Molly and William Hanner at the end of the slow process of coming apart as a couple: " 'I don't love you anymore,' William told Molly one Sunday afternoon as they sat together in the den." We're told that they had "stopped arguing about anything months ago, and instead became strictly critical of each other." And there seems almost something willful about it all (" 'I'm not important to you . . . ,' Molly said repeatedly. She made it come true. 'You don't trust me,' Will told her, and that came true, too."). But for all the normal suggestions of the inevitable about it, of the couple swept out of love as if through some interior erosion, the novel traces with something like awe the stages of the divorce -- and the effect of that divorce on all those involved -- especially Molly and her three children: Joe, Franci and Lucas. We go through the last days of William's presence in the house, and we are given the day he leaves for good. Emotions grow strange and unpredictable; this is not just a marriage but a household that is dissolving, and a particular family is trying to adjust to the new situation.

But in an odd way this is not a book about estrangement, nor does it have much to say about the much-mourned nuclear family; none of these general terms enters into it. Instead, Elizabeth Cox paints spheres of love for us between all the principal characters -- who are trying to deal with their pain and also trying to be decent -- and she shows us how these spheres shift under the pressures of daily living, with its big griefs and small, its inexplicable surprises and unexpected redemptions.

The result is a novel of uncommonly muted tones, scenes that are gauzy and that bleed together slightly, in prose that somehow gives the sense of miniature detail while using rather strikingly broad strokes of the brush. There's a blunt unadorned feeling in the writing, a kind of linguistic cragginess reminiscent of Thomas Hardy at his most obvious, and yet we never lose sight of what all of the Hanners see and feel, and we never get the sense that anything of their painful year is being glossed over or blurred. It just feels, well, downright clumsy at times. Indeed, this novel could as easily be called "The Ragged Way People Write Novels," with its strangely imprecise metaphors, its odd approximations of feeling and its apparently drifting plot; yet even its more blatantly inexact passages ("He wore a dirty shirt and wouldn't look at anyone, only his books that lay stacked on his lap, his hands draped over them, like a fish") manage to have the pitch of authority, and in any case the characters take on life; their complications and their daily struggles achieve extraordinary cumulative power. And when bad things happen to these people, your blood jumps. You are made to care about them that much, and I know of no higher praise you can give a book.

I HESITATE to say more about what does happen, for there are elements of the story whose pleasure could be compromised in a review. Suffice it to say that we follow the Hanners and their extended family through the year of waiting for the divorce to be final, and that the novel's apparent deficiencies in design are a function of what Cox has to tell us: "Life is not a story," she seems to be saying. "Pay attention, there is no inherent symmetry. We do not think in exact or literary metaphors. We experience life through things, in our skin and bones, and we process them not according to the flow of events but according to the secret motions of our hearts."

Cox's very primitive-feeling, at times almost child-like prose touches something elemental in us. The Ragged Way People Fall Out of Love takes the deep risk of its own imitation of the accidental and random in life, and succeeds hugely; reading it, one thinks of two lines of a poem of Henry Taylor's, in which the speaker meditates on "The kinds of Breakings there are/ And the kinds of restraining forces."

Richard Bausch's most recent book is "The Fireman's Wife, and Other Stories."

©The Washington Post, 1991