Short Takes

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Amanda Heller
May 4, 2008

By Suzanne Finnamore
Dutton, 272 pp., $24.95

Having marched us through a sassy semifictional account of her pregnancy in "The Zygote Chronicles," in "Split" Suzanne Finnamore files a dispatch from the next, less cheerful stop on the grand tour of life: the implosion of her marriage to a husband whose philanderings had been sensed but never acknowledged, like a rude odor.

Rather enjoying her role as the betrayed and abandoned Madwoman of Marin County, Finnamore rages, weeps, schemes, and eventually begins to pull herself together, helped by the love of friends; her mother, the irrepressible Bunny; and her adorable toddler son. Finnamore's shock and misery at her husband's defection are undeniable. But she also has the journalist's knack for drawing back and casting a cynical eye on the scene - even when it features herself disintegrating in self-pity, or self-humiliation, while gorging on Chips Ahoy! ("my reward for not hanging myself with a bra in the garage").

To chart her descent into and emergence from the marital lower depths, Finnamore borrows the familiar five stages of grief - a device that doesn't do justice to the comic extravagance of her emotional journey. Imagine instead Dante, assuming Dante had a wicked sense of humor and a drag-queen spiritual mentor called the Betty Lady.

The Lost Daughter
By Elena Ferrante
Translated, from the Italian, by Ann Goldstein
Europa, 160 pp., paperback, $14.95

So refined, almost translucent, that it seems about to float away, in the end this piercing novel is not so easily dislodged from the memory. "The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can't understand," says the narrator, Leda, who has wound up in the hospital after a smash-up that was largely but not solely automotive.

We flash back a few weeks. Elegant, middle-aged, long divorced, a literature professor on summer holiday, Leda is the portrait of solitary contentment. Her two daughters have gone to live with their father, leaving her free of responsibilities, free to lounge on the beach, free to observe with literary-critical detachment a large Neapolitan family of vacationers, in particular the interaction of an affectionate young mother with her little girl. A banal incident - the child loses a doll - turns Leda darkly introspective, as the penetrating gaze of her critical intelligence comes to rest coldly on herself.

"Elena Ferrante" is the pseudonym of a best-selling but resolutely anonymous Italian author. Interestingly, Ferrante transmutes the insights of feminism into affecting art while shunning the assertion of self that the same feminism would urge on (presumably) her.

History Lesson: A Race Odyssey
By Mary Lefkowitz
Yale University, 202 pp., $25

In the early 1990s the acclaimed classicist Mary Lefkowitz stepped into an ugly controversy that would consume a decade of her 50-year association with Wellesley College. It began innocently enough. Disturbed to hear that a colleague, a professor of Black Studies, was teaching that the ancient Greeks had "stolen" their culture from Egypt, she debunked his arguments with incontrovertible historical data. Or so she thought. But instead of subsiding, the dispute ballooned furiously into vitriol and litigation amid dueling charges of racism and anti-Semitism, as Lefkowitz found herself enlisted in a civil war she hadn't known was underway.

An expert on classical myth, Lefkowitz admits that she was naïve in her approach to powerful contemporary beliefs, and to her antagonist, clearly a difficult man. But what hurt more than her tussle with the schoolyard bullies of identity politics was her realization that the college she revered had capitulated to (anti-)intellectual fashion, and that under the banner of "academic freedom" there is no longer truth or falsehood but only opinions to which their proponents are equally entitled. Her account asks - and answers - provocative questions about the limits of that freedom and about what scholars owe their disciplines, their students, and their colleagues.

Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.

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