The heroine of Ellen Feldman's sixth and very appealing novel is Bailey Bender, a 40-something ace television news producer who has retreated from New York to live full time in the Hamptons. She is divorced and lives alone with a cat "who knew more about hailing a cab to go to the vet than hunting and killing."
Bailey has quietly settled into working at the local bookstore, purchased a few years before by a widow, Maude, who previously "has a successful career as And-His-Lovely Wife." Feldman writes: "They were both expartriates from other worlds and felt faintly alien in this one, and some nights after they'd locked the door and turned off the lights in the front of the store, Maude took a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red from the bottom drawer of her desk, and Bailey got the ice tray from the small refrigerator in the office at the back of the store, and they put their feet up on cartons of books and talked about everything under the sun, except their passed lives , which they kept stowed away like old clothes that might come back in style someday but probably wouldn't."
Along with working, reading, jogging and light meditations at the beach, Bailey takes trips to see her mother, Gilda, who is suffering from Parkinson's disease: "Her face was immobile, but her eyes still held some life, and for a moment she was the smart, calculating woman who'd worked her way up from a job as a part-time saleswoman to … a buyer whom half the houses on Seventh Avenue had courted and feared." She plays the tricky role of confidante to a 15 year old girl, Nell: "Nell had blossomed, and suddenly her confidence had shrunk and her worries grown. She worried if her sweaters and shorts, if her body was as thin and her face as pretty as the bodies and faces in the ads in the magazines she now pored over, and if her boys liked her. Her worries worried Bailey. She watched Nell, and saw her disappearing into a long, dark tunnel from which she wouldn't emerge until she was a 70 year ago widow, and was shocked at the surge of protectiveness she felt. Or maybe it was only envy. "And she tactfully but persistently tries to duck the relentless attentions of Mack, a charming though dysfunctional ("Nice pickup, Mack. Who'd you buy it from, Ma Joad?") local with whom Bailey had had a one-night stand the summer before.
It is in this subdued life that Bailey recognizes her need to deal with the unfinished business of her past: to find the son she gave up at birth more than 25 years ago. She does not wish to intrude into his life, but she would give anything just to see him, to know him, maybe to have some kind of relationship. The whole idea is fraught with the possibility for the pain and conflict, but Bailey has made up her mind. She is going to find him.
Up to this point, "God Bless the Child" unfolds flawlessly. And then, suddenly, there is- I don't know what else to call it- an editorial upheaval, as if someone had cut 50 pages out of the middle of this novel to throw us bam-smack into a plot twist that is not believable. This is particularly unfortunate for a writer like this, who, given the narrative time, could make anything believable. The considerable talents of Ellen Feldman did bring me back to the fold. In fact, I became willing to forgive anything if only to be able to finish the journey with Bailey.
What is dizzyingly splendid in the second half of the novel is the description of Bailey's being sucked out of the shadows and flung into the forefront of a sensational court case called the Polo Murder. ("Someone...ran it past legal to make sure Ralph Lauren couldn't sue.") Better yet, we are introduced to a host of new characters who represent the well-to-do of the Hamptons, and we see how many of their problems revolve around the same issues that plague the locals- love, sex, money, alcohol- but how very differently these problems play out for them, or are hidden . We've also got a terrific story developing with some young people in the novel, and they are fascinating to watch as they struggle to grow past their parents' inabilities to sustain healthy relationships.
In short, there is a whole lot going on in "God Bless the Child," and while the novel does not totally work as a mystery, there is plenty of suspense and genuine excitement well done. More than anything, though, it is the depiction of Bailey Bender and her relationships with family, friends and lovers that makes the novel come alive.--Laura Van Wormer, New York Times Book Review 5/17/98