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Friday, February 27, 2009

Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop takes a vow of silence in December

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Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop's debut novel Fireworks began as a series of short stories about an obsession with "nonstories." Aside from protagonist Hollis Clayton's ponderings on the "sadness" of a grown man dropping an ice cream cone on the ground, and the "mystery" of animals finding shelter in the rain, not much happens. There are observations of true poetic beauty, over which looms a shadow of genuine pathos (Hollis' wife leaves him after the accidental death of their 8-year-old son). But ultimately, Fireworks feels over-padded with insignificance.

The premise of Winthrop's second novel, December, suggests she's finally found a story worthy of a novel. By the time we meet Isabelle Carter, the 11-year-old hasn't said a word in nine months. She innocently began a streak of speechlessness that spilled over into the next day and then the next. Eventually, Isabelle becomes paralyzed by the fear of losing something if she speaks.

Ruth and Wilson, her bourgeois bohemian parents living in Manhattan's Upper East Side, aren't used to such obstacles. Research hasn't provided an answer. Several therapists say Isabelle is a lost cause. The headmaster of her private all-girls school, who's allowed Isabelle to work from home, says if she doesn't start talking by the end of the Christmas break, she can't come back.

Winthrop excels at portraying intimacies of family life that can, if conditions allow, metastasize into inescapable neurosis. Isabelle feels guilty for putting her parents through such pain, but can't stop herself. Ruth can't square the paradox of her daughter's psychology: If talking about problems leads to solutions, how can they solve Isabelle's silence? And Wilson can't stop thinking that talking isn't the answer at all. He'd rather take action, so he pins his hopes on the idea that maybe a trip to Africa will do the trick.

Even so, December feels like much ado about nothing, like a nonstory in much the same way Fireworks was. The story's conflict is rooted in hysteria stemming from a deep sense of bourgeois malaise. You wonder why these parents don't act more like adults. Why can't they just snap out if it?

Sure, the privileged elite have feelings too, but sympathy goes only so far when the novel's driving force is the fear that Isabelle might be kicked out of private school. It's as if having a mute daughter is as embarrassing as giving your kid a public education.

It'd be easier to go along for the ride if Winthrop delved deeper into human nature — to illustrate what it's like to grow up as a privileged young white girl, who has seemingly everything in the right place, but who nevertheless feels compelled to assert absolute control over her life. What is this fear that haunts her?

Isabelle could have been a metaphor for something all humans share — a crisis of being (talking, sound, words) versus the threat of nonbeing (silence, death). We never stop being human and therefore never stop feeling this tension; we just manage it the best we can. In December, however, such existential angst is rendered as a kind of short-lived panic that eventually goes away, like a brief period of silence.

December by Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop. Knopf. $23.95. 345 pp.

Winthrop appears as part of SCAD-Atlanta's Ivy Hall Writers Series, Sun., March 1, 3 p.m. Ivy Hall, 179 Ponce de Leon Ave. 404-253-3324. www.scad.edu/atlanta.

(Photo courtesy Knopf)

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