Saturday, September 10, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'Black and Blue'

Hello to my reading public, small as it is--have a review that's at least two or three weeks late! My semester starting was marred by the wonderful hurricane weather, and I've been swamped in efforts to catch up. I have at least two other reviews to get to you this weekend (the film adaptation of One Day, as well as one of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's Spider-Man: Blue), so stay tuned!

The Book:
Black and Blue: A Novel

The Author: Anna Quindlen

How I Found It: It came up as a recommendation as I browsed Amazon. This was apparently an Oprah's Book Club selection in 1998. My thanks to my local library.

The Review: The first time Fran is abused by her boyfriend, later husband, is when she's nineteen. He grabs her a little too hard after she talks to a friend's brother, leaves her with bruises--and appears perfectly contrite and apologetic when he next sees them.

Bobby's remorse doesn't always last. When they marry, Fran is trapped in a cycle of abuse and attempted atonement that will last almost twenty years, until a night when Bobby breaks her nose and she can no longer hide her abuse from the world--and, most importantly, their son, Robert. Fearing for her life and Robert's welfare, Fran makes the decision to flee, enlisting the help of Patty Bancroft, a woman who specializes in relocating abused women, claiming to be even better than the witness protection program.

Fran and Robert settle in Florida, living new lives as Elizabeth and Robert Crenshaw. Fran cannot forget what Bobby did to her, but she can try and forge a new life. It might not be so easy, since Robert's bond with his father is strong, and she knows that Bobby will always be looking for them. Nothing, not even the protection of a local gym teacher and a new best friend, can keep Fran feeling safe.

I've never read anything by Anna Quindlen before, unless I've read an article of hers without remembering, and now I think I'm curious enough to check out one of her other novels. I really enjoyed the writing style here--it was poetic, but somehow managed to convey the horrors of abuse in a way that felt realistic. Quindlen tells the story of Fran's escape linearly, but weaves it through with flashbacks to the various abuses Fran suffered. This, to me, made it feel as though Fran had escaped, but was constantly flashing back to life with Bobby, in a PTSD sort of way. This passage was perhaps my favorite in the novel:

"Or maybe Bobby had been having an argument with me in his head all day long--on the job in the car, while he was banging around the kitchen. Maybe it was an argument made of saved string, a big, brightly colored ball of an argument, the synthesis of all the arguments we'd ever had before. Why the fuck do you baby the boy go to your sister's ignore my mother wear that skirt work so many hours look at me like that fuck my friends your friends strangers doctors everyone anyone the man in the moon?" (171)

The attention to little details made the novel for me, and certain images will stick with me. The hem of Fran's wedding dress getting snagged on a nail on her wedding day, a sign of bad things to come. The first bruises Fran gave her being dark as a tattoo on her skin.

The content of the book never felt overly graphic, although it is disturbing, if true to life. The depiction of the hold Bobby has over Robert, even when they're miles away from him, is truly terrifying, and it really made me feel for women who must have had to deal with this situation in real life. What is it like when the child you've tried so desperately to protect from a monster still loves that monster, because it's his parent? What do you do in that situation, especially when the other parent can lie to the child and be believed without question?

The novel made me consider the reality of a battered woman's situation in a way I'd only barely done before, what with a Gender Violence class I took two semesters ago. I'd already known from that class that restraining orders and divorces are often ineffective at keeping an abusive husband or partner from his wife/girlfriend and/or children, but I hadn't even thought about how many must have to relocate completely and live new lives. I don't know if a program like Patty Bancroft's exists in real life, but if it does, I could see it being a real help for real women like the fictional Fran. Fran's situation is especially difficult because, as an ER nurse, she often sees the results of domestic abuse up close, as though she were looking in a mirror, seeing how horrifying the reflection truly is. If not for Patty Bancroft's network of volunteers, Fran might well have ended up in her own ER, dead or dying.

While Quindlen's novel was often unnerving and upsetting, especially towards the end, when the full scope of Fran's situation is revealed, I appreciated it for the perspective it gave me and the compelling way the story was told. Bobby and Fran are both nuanced characters and it's almost easy for the reader to understand why Fran kept returning to Bobby, despite his abuse. Quindlen's method of interspersing the flashbacks with the narrative, pulling the reader along to see what exactly happened in the past, was enough to keep me engaged in the narrative, and I recommend this novel to someone who might want a better understanding of the reality of a battered woman's situation. (Perhaps not to anyone younger than 15 or 16 or so--the violent content is disturbing, clearly, and there is some fairly frank sexual imagery and discussion.)

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