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A Perfect Arrangement

by Suzanne Berne
320 pages,
ISBN: 1565122615


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Brief Reviews
by Nancy Wigston

Suzanne Berne

Fiction
New England writer Suzanne's Berne's enthralling debut work, A Crime in the Neighbourhood, shot out of nowhere to win Britain's prestigious Orange Prize. A Perfect Arrangement (Algonquin Books, 320 pages, $36.95, cloth, ISBN: 1565122615), Berne's second novel, revisits familiar territory: the flawed American family with its illusions about safe neighbourhoods¨with a twist, however. In her first book a crime had taken place; we learn about its effects on one little girl whose family had coincidentally broken apart. In this book, it seems as if a crime is about to take place and that a family will split apart, so we are nailed to our seats throughout the narrative, waiting.

The time is the present, the problem the common one of finding suitable help. "Only a year since that Boston nanny sat in the news day after day, face blank as a dinner role, beside all those pictures of the poor little boy...People were installing video recorders now. Worry didn't come near it." Thus muses lawyer Mirella Cook-Goldman as she searches for yet another nanny for her kids. She and husband Howard are the working parents of bratty five-year-old Pearl and strange little Jacob, who's going on three. Jacob, the mystery child, doesn't yet speak and may be autistic (though Berne never uses the word), but he is very lovable¨more so, perhaps, than anyone else in the family.

His mother loves to work because the "law, unlike her family, was beautifully reducible," although she also loves the plain human need for "guidance and precedence" behind the law. Howard, an architect, is similarly complex. He fantasizes about ideal homes that echo early Americana, while being stalked by a woman with whom he had a brief affair. Berne is unsparing in her portrait of the Cook-Goldmans. They are as smart, self-absorbed and, yes, accomplished, as any privileged class family who has ever had trouble finding good help.

Naturally when that help arrives, in the form of young Randi Gill, she seems perfect. Devoted to the children¨especially Jacob¨a tireless cleaner, cook, and craft-maker. Too good to be true? Of course. Berne carefully weaves her nerve-wracking tale by feeding us dribbles about what exactly Randi has committed in the way of crimes as she relentlessly worms her way into the heart of the household. As the story progresses, the family falls increasingly under siege from Howard's infidelity, Mirella's surprise pregnancy, their serious job crises. Pressures loom, while everybody ignores the hardworking nanny.

While Berne colours her narrative with mundane events¨like the sheer difficulty mothers have in making it out the door in the morning and getting to work on time¨she also has a talent for creating an original supporting cast , like Mirella's likeable in-laws, Richard and Vivvy, or their irritatingly perfect neighbour, Alice Norcross Pratt. Her attempts to link the lives in this New England town with the quarrelsome history of its founders sometimes seem a bit of a stretch, but a similar me-first ethic is undeniably thriving in Berne's America. In this society, where the possession of a sense of humour is suspect, our loyalty remains with Mirella and Howard largely because of their shared intuition about life's ironies. In one of many telling scenes in the book, Pearl is with her mother in the car, listening to the news about the President. "Who is Fellatio?" asks the five-year-old. "Someone in a play," responds Mirella, not missing a beat. Berne so perfectly captures the strange times in which we live, that she may not have needed the worrisome nanny in the first place. Ordinary life is weird enough. ˛

Nancy Wigston

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