Black and Blue
by Anna Quindlen
Published by Random House
1998, 293 pages
Buy it online
Reviewed by Chuck Erion
My admiration for Anna Quindlen began with her novel of growing up in a New York suburb, Object Lessons, and increased with her second novel about a daughter accused of assisting her mother's euthanasia. (One True Thing ). The former New York Times columnist is not shy about tackling controversial subjects. Her latest book, Black and Blue, follows an abused wife with a ten-year-old son who escapes her husband.
This is no easy subject but Quindlen goes beyond stereotypes to explore the full range of emotions and motives of her characters. And she does it with a style that, like Alice Munro, illuminates the commonplace.
I finished the book in a weekend and was left pondering the issue of marital violence for days after. How does it get started? Why do victims take so long to leave? What impact will they and their children carry? What can society do to reduce the abuse? How many wives have are killed by ex-spouses who were "restricted" by restraining orders?
Francine Benedetto, a nurse, has been married to Bobby, an Italian-American cop in Brooklyn, for twelve years. At first he started hitting her, usually after drinking late at night, but the morning after he would bring her tea and act contrite. Then she rationalized staying with him for the sake of their son, Robert. If he awoke during these fights, she pretended that he'd had a bad dream, and that her cuts and bruises were accidents. As a nurse working in the ER she saw many cases of suspected abuse and consults a women who organizes an "underground railway" to help such women escape to a new cities and new identities.
As the book opens, Francine has suffered a broken nose and realizes that she must in fact leave to save her son and herself. Their departure is swift and effective; she is now Beth Crenshaw
living in a tiny townhouse in strip mall Florida. Her son is bewildered but soon makes friends with a Cuban boy next door. Beth is given a job as a homemaker nurse and, despite her fear that her husband will find them, they begin to fit into the community.
Quindlen never wastes a secondary character. Beth gets to know a woman whose daughter attends her son's school; they volunteer together in the school library. Cindy sells Avon, and helps Beth fix up her place. The writer could easily have slipped into parody but, like Beth, we overcome our initial hesitation and come to trust this woman. Beth's patients include a Jewish couple, the husband bedridden and speechless with emphysema. When he dies, Beth comes to help his widow and asks about their life together. She is told that the husband was an American soldier who "liberated" her from the death camps at the end of the World War.
Beth's own fears are seen against a backdrop of a much wider evil. Will she ever be able to trust another man? Her son's PE teacher and coach hopes patiently that she might. But in the background is the ever-niggling threat of her husband tracing them to this new life.
This tension keeps the pages turning. Can she convince Robert that life is only possible without his dad? What's to prevent her son from trying to call his father? Will they ever be able to contact Beth's family without fear that Bobby will use this to track them down? Through flashbacks, Beth's childhood and romance are disclosed. She readily admits it was sexual attraction that triggered her relationship with Bobby; and that she simply wanted "the extra powder room with guest towels" that suburban marriage promised.
We can thank Anna Quindlen for this portrait of an abused woman; perhaps by necessity the character of her abuser remains in shadow. Black and Blue will nudge Quindlen's reputation as both a storyteller and an intelligent explorer of moral issues.
January Magazine correspondent Chuck Erion has been a bookstore co-owner for 21 years. His store, Words Worth Books is located in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. He is also a freelance writer. The fact that he sometimes combines these passions -- books and writing -- is not a surprise, but it's certainly a delight for January's readers.