The Last First Day
By Carrie Brown
292 pages, $24.95
Evil Eye: Four Novellas
Of Love Gone Wrong
By Joyce Carol Oates
The Mysterious Press
216 pages, $23
By Karen Brady
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Love is sad, and sometimes savage, in two fascinating new works of fiction by Carrie Brown and Joyce Carol Oates – one tender, one unnerving, both driven by fear.
Brown’s novel, “The Last First Day,” is the gentle offering here – a tale of such true love that its protagonist, Ruth van Dusen, lives in constant terror of losing her cherished husband, Peter.
Oates’ “Evil Eye: Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong” deals with love that is far more complicated – a woman in each of its four novellas finding herself under the possessive sway of a persuasive and, ultimately, evil man.
Polar opposites at first glance, the two books are further linked by the vulnerabilities of all of the women here – women already damaged and ripe for the picking.
In this sense, “The Last First Day” and “Evil Eye” make intriguing psychological studies. Beyond that, they both involve the sorts of private sorrows and secret fears that, if we can’t identify with them, even a little, may be lurking right next door.
Brown’s Ruth van Dusen is a case in point. Outwardly, she is the kind and capable wife of the longtime, revered head of the Derry School – a New England boarding and prep school founded in the 1800s, initially “to educate boys once referred to as unfortunate.”
We meet her on what will turn out to be the van Dusens’ last “First Day” at Derry, where they have lived for more than 50 years, 40 of them in the headmaster’s house. Ruth, at 76, is preparing for the evening gathering she and Peter have held for faculty and staff at the end of every Derry “First Day” (of the fall semester) since Peter became head of school. Finding an old film projector and reels of footage from Peter’s early days as an American history teacher at Derry, Ruth is reminded of the winter Robert Frost came to read his poems at Derry:
“The evening had been a triumph for Peter, who had arranged it, and an honor for Derry, which then had no real standing among boys’ schools of the day.… Mr. Frost had eaten his dinner with apparent appetite but without saying much, his head bent over his plate. His face was so shut away and expressionless that Ruth imagined he had suffered recently a personal loss of great severity.
“But when he began to read in the chapel later that night, coming up to the podium after Peter’s introduction with the slow steps of a man accompanying a coffin to the grave, his voice was surprisingly strong. Ruth knew that even the philistines among the trustees could not have failed to be moved.
“I have been one acquainted with the night, Mr. Frost began …”
Ruth’s fond revery is short-lived, however, for she is uneasy these days, Peter now suffering from a rare and debilitating disease and she well aware of what the future will inevitably bring. And there is something else: Although she feels blessed by her long marriage to the notable, upstanding Peter, she is also, at 76, achingly aware that she “had wanted to be of use in the world” and that, in this regard, “her work … had not been equal to Peter’s.”
Brown’s Ruth is, then, petulant but proud of her lot – known for her warmth and domestic skills as the-woman-behind-the-man, a Smith College graduate whose married life began in an era when most females could only dream of making a mark. Plus, Derry was a world unto itself, set on many acres in Maine, a place where a headmaster’s wife could easily feel “stuck.”
Lulled into this dynamic, the reader of “The Last First Day” is soon surprised: Brown’s novel takes a U-turn. The expected doesn’t happen. Something else does – and all of a sudden it is 1945, Ruth but a child, moving from town to town, from seedy home to seedy home, with her untrustworthy father, each move generating still another “first day.”
Brown is skilful in this, showing us how time and place may have nothing to do with Ruth’s sense of powerlessness, how she came by self-doubt honestly and how even the esteemed Peter had once, and gravely, been a coward.
Brown is also a poetic writer, particularly when describing the roughly beautiful Maine outdoors, and if – at times – her plot twists seem a bit contrived, we suddenly realize these are not twists but metaphors for Ruth’s universe. In one instance, during the First Day gathering in the headmaster’s home, she enters the kitchen to check on her famous cheese puffs – and is held up at gunpoint by a man in tatters who, against the shrill sounds of the cocktailing First Day crowd, steals her old Subaru. Ruth’s response, after hearing him drive away, is to tend to the cheese puffs.
This is a book that grows in strength, spanning the 1960s to the present day and giving us, in addition to the van Dusens, the memorable Dr. Wenning, a female psychiatrist Ruth worked for during Peter’s days in graduate school at Yale. Dr. Wenning, most of whose family died in concentration camps, is a voice of wisdom throughout “The Last First Day,” always seeing clearly what Ruth cannot.
Oates’ “Evil Eye” also concerns women still in victim mode – but there is nothing subtle about these novellas. They are straight-out sinister and all the more chilling, as their protagonists are clearly in danger.
Because these are works by Oates, each is masterfully wrought – particularly the title novella, “Evil Eye,” which gives us Mariana, the young fourth wife of an internationally respected academic named Austin Mohr. He is 30 years Mariana’s senior, and they live in the home he has shared with all of his wives, filled with exotic objects, including “a strange sculpted-glass object,” a “nazar” given to Austin by his first wife, Ines, “to ward off the ‘evil eye.’ ”
As we enter their home, Ines is coming to visit – an event that will underscore for Mariana why her predecessors (as well as Austin’s children) “fled him. All of them.” Later, she will realize, “It must be all women he fears and loathes – I am only the current woman.”
In “So Near Any Time Always,” the spaces in the title are deliberate, a graphic way of emphasizing the Gogol-like way the young man Desmond mesmerizes Lizbeth, the girl from Strykersville, instilling his presence upon her psyche for all time.
“The Execution” has a male protagonist (yet a female victim) – Bart Hansen, a boy akin to the real Christopher Porco, who kills his father and critically wounds his mother only to profess his innocence and have his maimed and now-dependent mother stand behind him. (Oates, brought up in the Lockport area, sets his trial for murder in Niagara County.)
Finally, there is the alarming “The Flatbed,” in which love “indistinguishable from possession” will cause “bright laughter” to fall from the protagonist’s mouth “like broken glass.”
These are not novellas for the faint of heart. But, if you are up to them, they are glorious.
Karen Brady is a former Buffalo News columnist.