"Enjoyment" may seem an odd word to use in connection with a novel about a woman running from a husband of 17 years who has, on various occasions, blackened her eyes, split her lip, cracked her collarbone and broken her nose. Yet enjoyment, in the form of a gripping tale with a sympathetic protagonist, is precisely what Anna Quindlen's "Black and Blue" offers its readers. I read "Black and Blue" from beginning to end in one insomniac sitting.
When Quindlen's protagonist, Fran Benedetto, realizes that domestic terror is destroying not only her own life, but her 10-year-old son Robert's as well, she decides to leave behind her existence as a policeman's wife and emergency-room nurse in all-too-cozy Italian-American Brooklyn. "I'm a nurse, you know," Benedetto reflects, in one of her attempts to understand her long-delayed departure, "and a Catholic girl, a mother and the wife of a man who wanted to suck the soul out of me and put it in his pocket. I'm not real good at doing things for myself. But for Robert? That was a different story." She turns to Patty Bancroft, a woman who openly runs a kind of battered women's Witness Protection Program, providing false identification papers and new lives. The novel opens with Fran in a Philadelphia train station, awaiting Bancroft's anonymous connections, who provide the train tickets, bus tickets and car rides that will lead Fran, now "Beth Crenshaw," to a cramped duplex in a dusty Florida town.
The all-powerful organization that rescues Fran is implausible; resources available to battered women consist more frequently of underfunded shelters, overwhelmed social services and unenforced restraining orders. But beginning Fran's story with her decisive break is a shrewd choice, for "Black and Blue" attempts to give vigor to a figure -- the abused wife -- too often represented as a passive victim. Indeed, the novel's considerable strength is less its plot than its compelling first-person voice. Fran is a likable narrator, neither sentimental nor self-blaming about her own choices: "Sometimes as much as leaving Bobby I thought about leaving my house. Balloon shades and miniblinds and the way I felt at night sleeping on my extra-firm mattress under my own roof that we had hot-tarred the year after Robert was born -- all of it helped keep me there ... Small things: routine, order ... That, and love. That, and fear ... of winding up in some low-rent apartment subdivision with a window that looked out on a wall."
Like other contemporary domestic novelists, such as Anne Tyler and Anne Lamott, Quindlen balances her readers' longing to experience the protagonist's triumph with the knowledge that to end by simply rewarding virtue would betray the very realism we enjoy. Hampered by the need for secrecy, Fran slowly overcomes impoverishment, loneliness and fear to make new emotional connections. But the price she pays for this triumph is terrible, and all too real.