The father in Rebecca Stowe's second novel, "The Shadow of Desire," is one of the few completely convincing characters in any recent novel. I've encountered men like this in life, but I've never before read a novelist who captures this sort of desperate desire to be thought of as a great guy, to deny the chaos of his family life. His daughter says, "We all had the sense that we must keep everything unpleasant or ugly away from him, out of his view, keep him from knowing how unhappy we were, for if he knew, it would somehow blast the family to bits."
If Stowe had zeroed in on this man's suppressed rage and deep, hidden unhappiness, "The Shadow of Desire" might have been a devastating, scalding read. But her focus is Ginger, the daughter, during her yearly Christmas visit to her father, her alcoholic mother and her stunted, bitter brother. The clarity of Stowe's prose is its own reward. She avoids almost every bit of the aimlessness that can drive you crazy in modern "observational" fiction. Ginger, an academic who writes long biographies of obscure women because she finds it easier to deal with the unchanging dead than the unpredictable living, knows she's in a rut. Neither she nor Stowe pass the blame off onto someone else. Stowe does a superb job of balancing sharpness and compassion. She takes details that could seem merely quirky -- like the family's Christmas Eve tradition of renting "Psycho" -- and gives them narrative and thematic resonance. There's a brilliant section where Ginger goes downtown to do Christmas shopping that captures, in a few paragraphs, the urban ghost towns created by America's flight to the suburbs.
But centering on Ginger, who has an on-and-off relationship with an obnoxious young comic who makes fun of her in his act, is its own form of denial. No matter how aware she is, it's hard not to get agitated with a heroine who seems so determined not to change, not to feel pleasure. It's easy to imagine that it won't be long until Stowe finds a subject more deserving of her gifts. In "The Shadow of Desire," she's about halfway there.