Book Review: ‘Leaving,’ by Roxana Robinson

LEAVING, by Roxana Robinson

Every love story needs an obstacle, someone or something that threatens to keep the lovers apart. What obstacles are suitable for a contemporary American love story? The writer of such a story may wish to avoid the over-communication, the tolerance (real or performed) and the jadedness that dispel romantic tension. Can lovers still be “star-crossed,” doomed from the start to labor under a “malign star”?

They can, says Roxana Robinson, in her elegant love story “Leaving.” (Robinson is the author of nine previous works of fiction, as well as a biography of Georgia O’Keeffe.)

Warren and Sarah, two 60-year-olds who were a couple in their youth, cross paths at performance of “Tosca.” Years ago, Sarah had contemplated marrying Warren, but decided he would be an unwise choice for a mate. The very things that make him charming once he reappears at 60 — his enthusiasms, his intense desire for intimacy — scared the young Sarah, and she put her chips on Rob instead. He turned out to be the wrong choice, and the marriage was a washout. When Warren and Sarah run into each other at the opera, they’ve got unfinished business.

The two live contented lives until this encounter. Warren is married, while Sarah, the parent of two grown children and long divorced from Rob, is wedded to her woodsy home, her solitude and her exceptionally human dog. But as the narrative moves smoothly between the two points of view, we watch them become astonished and changed by each other. The affair that follows is mature, even if it is destructive. Sarah, the product of an intensely upper-crust background, is a restrained woman who speaks in self-edited phrases. We appreciate her meta-knowledge of her position. To a friend who endured her own husband’s affair, Sarah points out, “I’m the other woman.”

We don’t dislike Warren’s wife, Janet, either, but we wouldn’t want to be married to her. She’s on the goofy side, overly literal, and “afraid of people unlike herself.” On the other hand, she doesn’t deserve Warren’s duplicity, as he tries to “execute his marriage without causing pain.”

All of the grown-ups in the book are rendered gently. Years after the affair, Warren writes his still-furious daughter, “I’ve done something to damage our relationship, but as you know I have done everything in my power to atone for what I’ve done.” Atone, he does.

Turns out, it’s Kat — Warren’s grown daughter — who is this love story’s antagonist. When Kat hears that Warren has decided to leave her mother for Sarah, she begs him, “Please don’t do it, Dad. You haven’t done it yet. Don’t. You’ll kill us. You’ll kill our family.” The daughter’s pain soon hardens into something more severe. Finally, Kat lays down her terms: “If you divorce Mom, I’ll divorce you. I’ll divorce you utterly.” What follows may strain the credulity of some readers, and feel uncomfortably realistic to others. We watch Warren waver in the face of exile from his only daughter. “He was a father more than anything, it turned out. He was that first.”

Kat’s demands are outrageous, and yet there is something logical about them. We aren’t “married” to our children, but we are involved in something deeply contractual. We can culturally situate Warren’s position as the end result of the current state of parenting — some would say over-parenting — that has become the norm of many families with the means and time for it. This intimacy that we had or tried to have with our children has a price, and leaves us more bereft without them. A parent of this style cannot retroactively invoke social imperatives of yore, when children were guilted into duty and continued contact.

Deep into the book, “Leaving” feels like a Westchester remix of Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Dog,” another story of adultery with a confrontation at the theater. Robinson’s storytelling is classic, page after page of swiftly moving scenes and writing as precise as rows of tilled earth. Robinson reworks the short sentence musically, repeating and returning until words yield their meaning. As a girl, Sarah had “never spent much time with boys; she found them mysterious. What did they want to talk about? What were women allowed to say? Disagreement was not permissible with her father; he disliked it. Don’t make a scene, her mother would say. What was permissible to say to boys?” But I relaxed into Robinson’s masterly cadences and insights. The dialogue is elegant and tense, although at times the restraint does feel like that of another era. After reading “Leaving,” and her 2008 novel of addiction, “Cost,” I’d read any story she has to tell.

I had hoped, because of my tender feelings for all involved, that this story would end with the same reassurances as Chekhov’s. But as it turns out, when Robinson says “Tosca,” she means “Tosca.” The ending is a bombshell, eminently discussable. This lithe novel engrosses. Robinson proves that writers can still evoke the silences and renunciations that thwart desire, and that stars still cross.

LEAVING | By Roxana Robinson | Norton | 344 pp. | $28.99

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