I read dead people - Dickens, Balzac, Sylvia Townsend Warner (who?), etc. But once in a while I visit the quick. This time I'm glad I did, for The Orphan Game by Ann Darby is one mighty fine novel, written with great control and intensity.
Set in California in the turbulent early 1960s, a daughter, mother and aunt are vividly and deftly drawn, each with her own voice, vision and sorrows. Maggie is an unhappy and confused teenager, raging with hormonal desire. Her mother Marian never forgets or forgives, and battles with control issues. Mrs. Rum, the unconventional aunt, accepting and loving, is the balance for these two. But let the book speak for itself.
"...My sister was pretty, pretty in an unexpected way. I've studied prettiness in girls so that I could fake it and act pretty myself. I've noticed that sometimes it's hair, lots of long straight hair or lots of hair in a perfect flip with a sheen you can get from hair spray. Sometimes it's the way a girl crosses her ankles when she sits and twists her body as she speaks so you feel she's always about to turn away. Sometimes, and this is the easiest to copy, it's the eyes, a sweet roundness you can pretend to with eyeliner and mascara. But with my sister, it was a levelness, something perfectly straigt in her gaze. Standing on the pedals of her white Schwinn, my sister watched us with those pure eyes. I've looked for this gaze elsewhere, but I've seen it in only a few women, my mother among them, shen she's calm and doesn't know anyone is looking, and my own daugher. When I've looked at her, looking for traces of Bruce in her face, I've seen my sister looking back."
"People say the craziest things about freeways. They talk about them as if they were man-made rivers, the true landscape of the century. People even talk as if freeways were holy, as if driving onto a freeway were like taking communion, or a cure. But crazy as it is, people are right. Freeways do work a kind of cure. A calm, a peacefulness, settles on passengers. Babies fall asleep on the backseat, and children stretch out like lazy dogs under the rear windshield. The friction of the tires against the road works up through your feet and spine and numbs your legs and arms. Your ears fill with the wind and the thrum of rubber on pavement and the radio voices of passing cars, not to mention the chant of the engines, the polyphony of your engine and of the Buick or Studebaker out your window."
By the way, if you're in a book discussion group, this would give everyone ample fodder, for there's a mysteriousness about each of these women.
Ann Darby is a writer in the Wertheim Study at The New York Public Library.