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Did Mom Have a Terrible Life? : EQUAL AFFECTIONS <i> by David Leavitt (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: $18.95; 268 pp.) </i>

<i> Dirlam is a Times staff writer. </i>

Danny and Walter are lovers, living a middle-class and somewhat boring existence, although Walter is habituated to a homosexual computer network. April, Danny’s older sister, is a feminist folk singer who has decided to be a lesbian although she is sexually attracted to men. Their father, Nat, is involved with another woman although he still loves his wife, Louise.

Louise is the center of the family and the center of the story. She is dying. And she has been dying for 20 years or so. Dying by little degrees, little frights, each bringing her closer to death than the last but each a bit less devastating than the one before. The cancer in Louise’s body fights dirty, flaring up when least expected and then regressing again. Her illness dominates the family relationships, especially the marriage; Nat is drawn to her when she is ill, and resentful of her strength.

When at last the end of her life approaches, it is slow and extremely painful, Louise’s very skin on fire with pain, and death a “slow, slow winding down, each breath just a little less powerful than the one before.” There’s no moment of death with its attendant sigh of relief. The physician explains: “She’s half alive, then a quarter alive, then an eighth alive . . . at some point you just have to decide.”

Later, Danny asks April: “Do you think she had a terrible life, our mother?”

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April’s answer seems to be the reason for all these pages of psychological exploration, all these scenarios and possibilities and memories both touching and terrible. It is a question that can’t be left alone and so the writer, having asked it, goes searching for clues and secrets that might unlock the meaning of this woman’s life.

For a young male writer, Leavitt is impressively perceptive and sensitive to the feelings and fears that might dominate an older woman, a woman who would follow her husband for miles as he tries to escape her to meet his lover, a woman who secretly envies the life of Catholic nuns, a woman who is at once emotionally powerful and physically weak.

The sister, April, is the character who gets the most attention, and yet seems to be the least developed. And whether she’s a famous folk singer or not, it is hard to imagine a younger brother who would wash out his sister’s underwear for her as they travel around the country on concert tours. In writing about the character, April, there does seem to be a sense of a young man trying to understand a sister several years older than he, and not quite succeeding. So it is all the more notable that the older woman is so achingly real and memorable.

One imaginative scene involves artificial insemination using a turkey baster, followed by the inevitable mother-daughter argument when the pregnancy is announced. This sets up the punch line: “Mom, I do not need your responsibility lecture right now.”

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Another scene involves a devilish parlor game in which the players try to guess a story about themselves and end up revealing their own disturbing truths.

The homosexual relationship of Danny and Walter is developed in a deliberately casual style, in contrast to the various characters’ struggle to understand all the other relationships going on. There’s a pair of elderly brothers, who stand side by side at a memorial service and who jointly treat the entire family to a Chinese dinner, although they haven’t spoken to each other for decades. They could be shadows of Danny and Walter in their lack of communication at one level and the depth of their attachment at another.

Leavitt is a witty and sensitive writer. His stories are about real people and their everyday lives. The narrative concludes with loose ends still dangling, the way Louise’s life ends, the way things are in real life.


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