A Many Splintered Thing

Amy Bloom's First Novel Is Beautiful But Fragmented.
By Piers Marchant

Love Invents Us, (Random House), by Amy Bloom. Hardcover, $21.

TO ELIZABETH TAUBE, the central narrator in Amy Bloom's engaging first novel, Love Invents Us, the idea of love as powerful and all-consuming is the only thing that gives her life shape and meaning. Her parents, rich and cloistered in their Westchester County-type house, are icily distant. ("Don't wear light colors when you have it, lovey," is her mother's only piece of advice to Elizabeth when she gets her first period.) Older men, however, are more than happy to pay attention to her, from the owner of a fur store who has her modeling for him when she's barely prepubescent, to her high-school English teacher, who becomes obsessively in love with her.

It is only when she herself falls in love, with Huddie, a black basketball player at her school, that she begins to gain clarity and understanding.

Bloom, whose collection of stories, Come To Me, was nominated for the National Book Award, has a strong grasp of the oft-misspent power of teenage sexuality and the ways in which people's histories collect like leaves in a drain, shaping and forever affecting their decision-making processes. There's a messy, adolescent sexuality throughout the novel, like a pin-up photo magnified into gross, too-close-for-comfort detail. A description of photos Elizabeth finds in her teacher's closet reveals a certain kind of sexual debunking, but from such a hyper-romanticized point of view that the contrast becomes striking: "She was naked, kneeling in one, on her hands and knees in the others, looking back at the camera with a stupid smile. Her long hair hung over one shoulder, and her rear end was dark with pimples and little creases and hairs."

Elizabeth is just the type of gloomy, self-obsessed teenager who tends to fall into inevitable patterns of neurosis and self-destruction. What saves her, to everyone's surprise (including her own), is her inner strength.

The novel, too, takes the reader a bit by surprise. Bloom is a wonderful writer, and in many places her prose sparkles. "I longed for her the way lovers in movies longed for each other, across time and space, their eyes looking right past what was possible," Elizabeth explains about her mother, hinting at a contingency she can only see in terms of cinematic irony. But Elizabeth's narration is so strong that in the second section, when Bloom switches to a third-person perspective, you feel left behind and suddenly disengaged.

Structurally, the novel is on the schizoid side: What starts as a first-person, coming-of-age book spreads out and tries to encompass many lives, years, and perspectives; too many and too much to hang together cohesively on the book's tiny frame. One senses that Bloom, who based this book on a single story from her previous collection, isn't sure how to properly expand her ideas into a novel. At times, the book jumps from place to place in a jarring way, only to fragment at crucial moments. Expanses of time (Elizabeth in college, her mother's illness) are covered only in the briefest glimpses, reducing the collective power of the book. The last chapter, after Elizabeth and Huddie finally reunite after many years, masterfully shifts between a first- and third-person narrative--you see the effect she was trying for all along, but by that time we've already become discombobulated.

Each chapter is titled as a story, and contains what seems to be a complete piece unto itself. It's the same type of structure that worked wonderfully in Louise Erdrich's first novel, Love Medicine; but here, it dilutes the final product. The whole reads like a separate and unfinished collection of pieces. In the end, the novel proposes to carry more weight than it's able. Though Bloom hasn't yet discovered precisely the manner to build her exquisite prose into a full-fledged novel of scope and power, Love Invents Us remains a very readable effort. TW

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