BOOK REVIEW : Connected Tales of the Artist's Life

Secret Harmonies by Andrea Barrett (Delacorte Press: $16.95; 256 pages)

Here are 10 interlocking short stories (and a prelude) that function as a novel. The location is described exactly: " . . . that pocket of land halfway between the Berkshires and the Connecticut Valley but part of neither . . . a triangle of weirdness worth exploring." The characters, too, are set out with meticulous care. Among a whole flock of kids who roam this northern swamp, Reba Dwyer is a middle child in a family of three children. Hank, her elder brother, is timid and care-taking; Tonia, her younger sister, has a mild case of Down's syndrome, but will grow up to hold a job, and write surprisingly good poetry.

The Dwyers' life is informed by two sources of conflict and sorrow: (1) There is absolutely no money; this is Eugene O'Neill country, where there's no way at all to make a living; and (2) The elder Dwyers--Magda and Bowen--are totally incompatible, and neither one of them, as the kids are growing up, get to do what they want. Thus, Magda, who should be keeping the house clean and making meat loaf, pretty much ignores the kids and messes wistfully instead with machinery. She wants to fix things--not be a housewife.

And Bowen, having returned from a war to take advantage of the GI Bill, has studied music and fallen in love with it, but he can't make a living making music in the tiny town of Rockledge. He ends up leaving the church choir and raising filthy, sickly chickens on a bleak farm he's inherited from his father. Bowen hates his life, and stays drunk half the time to maintain some distance from the facts of his life. The result in the Dwyer household is pure chaos. Thinking about it later, Reba will reminder: "We grew up like dogs . . . . Nice dogs ruined by bad training."

But on another level, Magda is teaching her children common sense and self-reliance, and Bowen teaches Reba everything he knows about music theory, enough so that she can get a scholarship and go for one year to music school. Reba is a "genius," or at least a person who was born to live her life through art, but the author here, after having skillfully set up this chaotic, rural childhood, changes the focus of these stories: Life can be set on a triangular grid, she seems to be saying, and you can live in just one corner of that cosmic triangle. You can live the necessary but unexciting life of family and reproduction. Reba's young husband, her childhood sweetheart, Luke, wants no more than that. You can live a life of total isolation and independence.

Reba's father, Bowen, picks up and simply leaves as soon as his chickens die, communicating with his family by post cards that he doesn't bother to sign (but we're to understand he's lonely). You also can live the life of the committed, dedicated artist, but, again, the author's position is that this life precludes the consolations of love, stability and family. Early on, before she's married, Reba takes up with a wild girl from high school. They pick up endless men, smoke incredible amounts of hash, drink innumerable cups of coffee, finish off with packs of cigarettes, and then do their very best singing in the church choir. When Reba marries, she loses her singing voice in the fourth month of pregnancy--just about when the babies "quicken." But Reba's babies die; the implication is that she's just not "made" to be a mother.

Reba, in her stable marriage, suffers terminal boredom. She has to get out of Rockledge; she needs to express herself artistically. She takes piano lessons; that's not her instrument. She collects a string of generically caddish lovers (the weakest part of the book, since these poor guys never come alive, but only serve to show Reba what she doesn't need). Is there a way for Reba to claim her family, accept the chaos she's come from, and still find her true calling, and function as an artist? The answer comes in the title, "Secret Harmonies," and a chain letter promising good fortune that weaves its way through the book. . . .

These are thoughtful stories, and some of them are remarkably touching. But womanizers should pass on this, for their own piece of mind.

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