Beginning in fifth grade, Phoebe Fine, the daughter of an oboist in suburban New Jersey, finds that love is a risky game to play. There is Roger Mancuso, who offers Phoebe her first cigarette, her first kiss, and her first experience of loss. There is Spitty Clark, the frat boy and inveterate party animal who's a possible criminal but also somehow a man of honor. Later on, as a young woman living in New York, Phoebe crosses the path of arrogant Pablo Miles (n� Peter Mandelbaum), who licks her hand moments after they meet. And so it goes, as Phoebe struggles to reconcile her conflicting desires for safety and adventure, sympathy and conquest. Lucinda Rosenfeld relates Phoebe's serial, seriocomic encounters with freshness, range, economy, and emotional precision:
"She understood the jealousy emaciation aroused in other women."
"She couldn't persuade herself to spend an entire hour's salary on a piece of bread and three zucchini rounds."
"Their first date was more like an appointment. To screw."
Unexpected, absorbing, and likely to elicit strong identification among men and women alike, What She Saw . . . serves up acute observations and serious ideas--Phoebe's recognition of her complicity in the disenchantments she endures, the intersection of Eros and ambition--with stealthy charm. The sum of these parts is an intriguing, funny, sharp, and occasionally devastating rendition of that most basic and crucial of human stories: growing up. The vision in What She Saw . . . is perfect.
Both breaking up and growing up are hard to do, learns Phoebe Fine, the protagonist of Rosenfeld's engaging, nostalgic and sometimes frustrating first novel. Each chapter is devoted to a man who has captured Phoebe's attention, affection and occasionally her heart, between the ages of 10 and 25, starting with "Robert Mancuso, or 'The Stink Bomb King of Fifth Grade.'" Young Phoebe, the intellectuallyAif not sociallyAprecocious daughter of two professional classical musicians, is sassy and sympathetic in the amusing early chapters. But once she enters college, romance shows its darker sides, and Phoebe's desire to be loved takes its toll on her self-esteem. She develops eating disorders and suffers lapses of judgment in her amorous encounters; she has an affair with a married professor, and succumbs emotionally to a number of cads. "At the age of 20," Rosenfeld writes, "men had become the centerpiece of her life." After graduation, Phoebe moves to New York and dabbles in promiscuity to prove the power of her beauty, only to learn that "being beautiful wasn't nearly enough." Her search for self, fulfillment and true love goes on, though she's far too cynical to find anything but moments of clarity and fleeting bliss. Rosenfeld's style is direct and often witty, and the plot device is intriguing. The reader gets to know Phoebe as she interacts with her love interests; as she tests her mettle, she learns who she is, even if she doesn't quite like who she's become. But it's exasperating to watch Phoebe the wise, funny girl grows into Phoebe the insecure woman who mistrusts her own heart. First serial to the New Yorker. (Sept.) WINTER RANGE Claire Davis. Picador USA, $23 (272p) ISBN 0-312-26140-3 ~ The New West is the setting for an old-fashioned power struggle in Davis's entrancing debut. Sheriff Ike Parsons, 42 and married to fiery redhead Pattiann, patiently patrols a small Montana town whose cattle outnumber its residents. Pattiann, who always loved the ranching life, was reluctant to settle into her role as a townie's wife, and is bitter over her father's decision to pass on the family ranch to her younger brother. It seems a modern Western woman is powerless, except in the sexual realm, which Pattiann discovered as a rebellious, promiscuous teen. Chas Stubblefield was one of the many boys she drunkenly coupled with in her youth, and 16 years later, when Chas comes to her for sympathy, she fools herself into thinking that she and the down-and-out rancher might still strike sparks. A lonely bachelor, Chas lacks business savvy, and can't afford enough feed for his livestock during a particularly harsh winter. Compassionate (but ignorant of Chas's past with Pattiann), Ike offers to help Chas, fully expecting the stubborn, explosive man to swallow his pride. Chas's situation is indeed horrifying: his cattle are already dead or starving, and bankrupt Chas lives off the meat. Ike conceives a plan to mercy-kill the surviving animals, provoking Chas, now helpless to stop the law from taking everything he owns, to settle the score, even if it means hurting the woman he loves. Crisp details establish place and characters with authoritative clarity. As the characterization deepens, so do the suspense and the reader's empathy for decent people trapped by human flaws and fate. The narrative, moving surefootedly toward its denouement, raises serious questions about the law, love and ethics in a tough rural community. With prose as crystalline and clean as snow on the Montana prairie, Davis establishes herself as a writer to watch. Author tour. (Sept.)
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September 03, 2001
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Excerpt from What She Saw... by Lucinda Rosenfeld
On the Tuesday before Easter, a substitute teacher appeared behind Mrs. Kosciouwicz's metal desk. His face looked like a dented Yukon potato. His jazz shoes were the color of cement. He was tall and thin except for a pillow-sized potbelly that spilled helplessly over his plaid pants. "I'm Mr. Spumato," he announced to the assembled fifth-graders. "And I'll be your sub until further notice."
Euphoria swept through the classroom at the thought of Mrs. Kosciouwicz never coming back.
She was always lecturing them about the importance of sitting up straight. She made them read the dictionary and watch boring filmstrips on the origins of math. She was highly intolerant of lateness and (despite her own abysmal record) deranged on the matter of absenteeism. Over the educational-games shelf, she'd hung a poster of a beak-nosed owl reading PROCRASTINATION IS THE THIEF OF TIME. On the back of the door, she'd tacked another one asserting SILENCE IS GOLDEN. The only time she baked them cupcakes was when Reagan beat Carter. The only time she let them leave school early was when Reagan got shot. Her pull-on pants were the color of dog shit. Her bosom hung down to her waist. Her bifocals hung from a necklace. She was probably only sixty.
She seemed about as old as ancient Mesopotamia.
Roger Mancuso's hand shot up-not before he'd blurted out, "Did Mrs. K. croak-or what?"
"What is your name, young man?" snarled Mr. Spumato.
"Mick," he answered. "Mick Jagger. "
"Well, Mr. Jagger," said Spumato, trying to drown out the tsunami of laughter that rose from the back row. "If you'd like to take your question to the principal, I'd be happy to accompany you to his office."
"0000000hhhhh," crooned the class in unison.
"I just wanted to know if the old lady was alive," countered Roger.
"You'll know what I tell you!" cried Spumato.
"I'll know what I want," said Roger. "And I want to know what happened to my friggin' homeroom teacher."
Now the class cheered. Poor Spumato. He must have known he was losing control. He couldn't have been happy about it. He pointed a single, trembling finger at his nemesis. "One more peep, Mr. Jagger, and you're outta here for good!" Then he cranked his thumb backward over his shoulder in the direction of the principal's office, in case anyone thought he was kidding. (No one did.) The class fell silent-even Roger, who went back to his guitar magazine. The rest of them fixated on Mr. Spumato's flaccid backside jiggling up and down as he began to script grammatical terminology on the board.
He about-faced several minutes later. "Who can tell me the difference between a pronoun and a noun?" he wanted to know, his tobacco-stained moustache twitching ever so slightly. But not a single hand rose. "None of you little punks knows the difference between a pronoun and a normal noun," he tried again. And then again: "I SAID WHO THE CRAP KNOWS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A NOUN AND A PRONOUN?" Now the class shrieked in ecstasy. Crap was the kind of word Mrs. K. deemed grounds for suspension, and here was the substitute teacher making unrepentant use of it.
"Spumato! Spumato! Spumato!" Roger started to chant, palms pounding rhythmically on his ink-stained desktop, and the rest of the class quickly joined in. "Spumato! Spumato! Spumato! Spumato!"
It was when Spumato started to shake that they finally shut up. They were suddenly mortified for their sub-for his failure to control them, for his irrational fear of their harmless delirium. They stared at their hands. They prayed for the bell. They didn't really want to see him fall apart.
They were rescued by the introduction of a terrible odor.
It wafted through the classroom, inflicting punishment on all possessed of a sense of smell. It wasn't long before the situation became insufferable. Their throats threatening to close, they ran for the door gasping. The smart ones pinched their noses. "Come back here, you little punks!" roared Mr. Spumato.
But then he, too, succumbed to the stench-and followed the stampede into the hall.
That was the last anyone saw of Plaid Pants.
As for Roger Mancuso, after confessing to the stink bomb, he was suspended for three days and threatened with expulsion. He was only too happy to have the time off to listen to his favorite Rolling Stones album, Some Girls, another hundred times. And upon his arrival back at Whitehead Middle (a.k.a. Blackhead Middle and/or Shit-Head Middle) the following week, he was given a hero's welcome, complete with chanting, backslapping, synchronized farting, and a new nickname: "Stinky."
He was also presented with a change of seats. Seemingly back from the dead, Mrs. K. moved the so-anointed Stink Bomb King to the front row, one seat to the left of Phoebe Fine, who couldn't believe her luck.