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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
A magazine columnist once criticized Anna Quindlen for "arguing strenuously" in her New York Times Op-Ed column that "spousal abuse was bad." Well, there's nothing strenuous or argumentative about Quindlen's new novel Black and Blue. Narrated with a reserve and precision that lets the story speak for itself, it is a compelling account of one very troubled family and stands as eloquent testimony to the devastating consequences of domestic violence.
Domestic life has served as Quindlen's touchstone in much of her journalism and all of her fiction. With her third novel, the first to be published since she quit The New York Times in 1994, she has pried apart the bulwark of the family to expose one of its dirtiest little secrets. Despite the 1990s sensibility that allows us to talk openly about all kinds of subjects that were once taboo—breast cancer, incest, drunk driving—domestic abuse remains shrouded in an old-fashioned prudishness. But any reporter who has thumbed through a day's worth of complaints at a police precinct, as Quindlen no doubt has, knows that most of them are dispassionate accounts of the brutality that regularly passes between husbands and wives.
The family that Quindlen sketches for us is a familiar stereotype for domestic abuse. Bobby Benedetto is a second-generation Italian cop from Brooklyn, the type who worships his mama (especially her red sauce), describes his father as "some piece of work," and peppers his remarks with casual bigotry. He's also a fanatical bodybuilder who enjoys his liquor. Fran easily fits the role of quiet, dutifulwife. She marries at 21, bears a son, works as a hospital nurse. This is just the kind of family where the husband would smack his wife around in the kitchen because she criticized one of his friends, and the wife would call in sick to work until the bruises healed. But instead of undermining her story, Quindlen's decision to play to type enriches it. The fact that the story she has chosen to tell is so typical is what gives it so much power.
Quindlen's narration skillfully mines her story for the strongest emotional impact. She opens the book by thrusting us into her subject—"The first time my husband hit me I was nineteen years old"—then pulls back and takes a good long time to fill in the details of that declaration, as Fran studies her marriage from a crummy apartment in a dusty strip mall city in Florida called Lake Plata. She has finally left Bobby—running off one morning with one duffel bag and her ten-year-old son, Robert, in hand, without the slightest idea where she is headed. Her disappearance is engineered by Patty Bancroft, the chief of a supersecret network of volunteers that helps abused wives vanish.
As Fran Benedetto becomes Elizabeth Crenshaw and goes about constructing a new life built on an invented biography, she allows herself to plunge into the truth about her old life. Quindlen does a masterful job of demonstrating how every aspect of Fran's existence has been distorted by her husband's abuse without ever letting the story slip into movie-of-the-week melodrama or holier-than-thou preachiness.
On the outside I looked fine: the job, the house, the kid, the husband, the smile. Nobody got to see the hitting, which was really the humiliation, which turned into the hatred. Not just hating Bobby, but hating myself, too, the cringing self that was afraid to pick up the remote control from the coffee table in case it was just the thing that set him off...I stayed because I wanted my son to have a father and I wanted a home. For a long time I stayed because I loved Bobby Benedetto, because no one had ever gotten to me the way he did. I think he knew that. He made me his accomplice in what he did, and I made Robert mine. Until that last time, when I knew I had to go, when I knew that if I told my son I'd broken my nose, blacked my eyes, split my lip, by walking into the dining-room door in the dark, that I would have gone past some point of no return. The secret was killing the kid in him and the woman in me, what was left of her. I had to save him, and myself.
Quindlen is particularly good at capturing the details of a life dominated by abuse, like Bobby not wearing his wedding ring anymore because it once split Fran's skin when he punched her. "I guess you could consider it considerate, that he didn't want that to happen again," Fran thinks. "But of course, it implied that there would be an again." Methodically, she illuminates every corner of Fran's life, until we see it with horrifying clarity. Fran isn't some amalgam of abuse victims in a brochure—she's a fully formed woman, and when we read about her getting her collarbone smashed or struggling to set her broken nose by herself, the devastation we feel for her is real. Just as palpable is the shadow that dims every day of her new life: the very real possibility that Bobby will find her. He lies just beyond sight at her son's soccer games, concealed behind the shrubs outside her apartment building, lurking in a crowd of people at the mall. We know, as does Fran, that he must be looking for her (though Quindlen never tells us for sure), and that menacing presence gives the story real tension and suspense. It also paves the way for a very realistic—and very shattering—finale.
One of the novel's sweetest scenes takes place on Fran's first Thanksgiving in her bare new apartment. After a miserable lunch at a restaurant, she and her son spend the afternoon creating a mosaic on Robert's closet door with a pile of clippings from old Sports Illustrateds and a pot of wallpaper paste. "This is the coolest thing we've ever done," Robert exults. We are just as grateful as Fran for that hour of pure joy. Black and Blue is more than a powerful illustration of the insidiousness of domestic abuse. It is also a gripping story of one woman's courage in the face of terror, an ordinary woman who finds the will to reclaim her life.