Roxana Robinson is an ethnic writer. She writes of a sub-world: its manners, speech, folkways and the tragicomic difficulties its denizens encounter within the broader American culture. Her particular ethnic minority names its children Samantha, Hilary, Vanessa, Belinda, Nicholas and Jock, along with an ancestral scattering of Johns and Edwards.
When rich, it inhabits a high-ceilinged apartment on New York's Central or Gramercy parks or an expensive New Jersey suburb; when not so rich it chooses neighborhoods with a traditional though worn cachet. In any case, it is less a matter of where it lives than of where it would, under no circumstances, consider living. It has a summer house on Long Island or in western Massachusetts or, lacking that, uses its parents' rambling brown-shingled place in Maine.
Even after money no longer sleeps in its trust funds, a reminiscent snoring lingers among its bloodlines. Its children will somehow manage to go to good schools, or in any event be turned down by them. When no longer grand enough for a sense of entitlement, it will have, at least, a sense of inner obligation.
In "Asking for Love," nobody has much fun. The stories recount marriages that are under strain or broken. The women narrators and protagonists are struggling, in their 30s or 40s, to find connections with their unsatisfactory husbands, insufficient lovers and unhappy and resentful children. Every movement--whether from love, anger or an attempt to fashion some kind of healing or order--is effortful. Every relationship suffers moral arthritis: Its joints hurt.
In "The Nile in Flood," a middle-aged woman, fleeing a bad first marriage and a bleak career, marries a rich older man. She seeks peace but on their honeymoon cruise up the Nile, an abortive overture by the cruise director reminds her of the passionless prospect she has settled for.
In "The Reign of Arlette," a career woman both appreciates and resents the efficiency of the French au pair who takes care of her summer house and teenage children while she is working in New York. Arriving to begin her vacation, she finds that the au pair has seduced Nick, the son. The mother has, she feels, lost him.
It is not easy to sympathize with either woman. They are foolish; furthermore, neither story is very good. Robinson tends to over-arrange her characters and situations; and she likes to end with a gong-like sentence that proclaims, not that dinner is served, but that the reader has been. ("Nile": "She had not known that the line at the end of passion would be so clearly marked, that the life that lay before her would be so pale, so dry." "Arlette": "In Nick's voice I could hear that it was not Arlette's reign that had ended.")
In two far better pieces--the title story and "The Nightmare"--the protagonists are also foolish but in a way that evokes a wry understanding. These stories, written with penetration and poignancy, have similar subjects: A woman who has left an unsatisfactory marriage tries to establish a relationship with a man whose wife has left him. The two women protagonists have made their choices and a clean break; the two entirely nice men they take up with are still psychologically bound.
The children are the key. The narrator of "Asking for Love" has been willing to endure the rage and pain of her teenage daughter; her lover, to spare his daughter, conceals the affair from her. Each woman's attempt to establish a new life meets a humiliating check, one that the author makes painfully specific, yet each retains her dignity and our compassion. Foolishness lay not in the effort to be free but in failing to foresee the price to be paid. The narrator of "The Nightmare," hiding in her lover's library to avoid being seen by his daughter's baby-sitter, reflects:
"There are no rules once you're divorced. The patterns are disrupted. You've had your moment, in the white dress, the veil, when everything was orderly and understood: There was the bride's side, the groom's. After a divorce, everything is askew, uncharted. Now there are times when you stand behind a closed door, holding your breath so the baby-sitter will not hear you."
Robinson uses children as barometers of the bad weather in the house. In one story, a little girl whose mother is off to meet a lover--under cover of a business trip--protests that her father won't know how to put calamine lotion properly on her poison ivy. Her anguished fuss is the only way she knows to register the quiet dissolution that is going on. Another story--witty and affecting despite another gong ending--portrays a tragicomic awful scene in a diner where a woman and her lover, both divorced, introduce their daughters, 5 and 8, to each other.
Some of the best writing focuses not only on the protagonists' complex and expensive distress but on some physical detail that signals it. We see the poison-ivy child in the living room her mother had once furnished and decorated with taste and hope, and that, years later, what with the "business trips," is in disarray and unkempt. The fall of the house of Atreus was marked by neglect of the mud-brick as well as by the grander horrors.
In "Do Not Stand Here," Robinson manages to evoke the suppressed anger in an upper-class but hard-up British marriage. The husband has insisted on offering an expansive lunch for two American friends. He brandishes wine and charm while his wife brings out the soup, one plate at a time, from the kitchen, takes them back one by one--refusing to acknowledge the Americans' offer of help--and reemerges, still one plate at a time, with slices of lamb done to a perfect pink and stone cold.
At their best, Robinson's stories explore their preserve with the insight but also some of the claustrophobia of ethnic writing that works well in its own confines but does not go beyond them. If she is mainly just good--at times, very good--it is because her stories are artful particularities that are not quite artful or particular enough to become universals.
She brings us into the world of her people, but we enter as privileged tourists. When we leave, that world doesn't come with us, as it does with the ethnic transcenders, who travel through to its far side: a Gish Jen, a Toni Morrison or a Gloria Naylor; a Bernard Malamud, a John Updike, sometimes a John Cheever.