"My Father, Dancing"

A debut collection of stories about fathers and daughters proves the author sovereign over a very small terrain.

Published August 4, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In her debut collection, Bliss Broyard is sovereign over a very small terrain. The eight stories in "My Father, Dancing" shift between first- and third-person narration, between seeming autobiography and seeming invention. But they all share the same heroine, more or less -- an affluent, intelligent, insecure young woman with a glamorous father, who attends fancy schools and lives in New York or Cambridge, Mass. -- and they all trace the same arc, in which a small domestic drama leads to a small insight about that heroine's character, family or love life. No wonder the blurbs call Broyard's stories "satisfying" and "straightforward" -- they're standard, well-made tales of our time with very few false notes. But surprising insights and beautiful language are equally rare.

As the title suggests, a charismatic father is at the center of this book, appearing in five of the eight stories. Broyard's own father, the late New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard, must have been very like the interchangeable though variously named fathers in these pieces: The charming adulterer of "Mr. Sweetly Indecent," the worldly opera conductor of "A Day in the Country," the arrogant lawyer of "At the Bottom of the Lake" all bewitch and frustrate their daughters, who are recognizably the same person whether they are young girls, adolescents, college students or recent graduates. In each story, a bit of that father's omnipotence is chipped away -- most sentimentally in the title story, a sad but familiar chronicle of a father's dying from cancer; most cleverly in "The Trouble with Mr. Leopold," in which the writer-father is shaken when a paper he has ghostwritten for his daughter gets a C+.

The same heroine also shows up in the other three stories, which deal with sex and love, discovering them and being thwarted by them. The shadow of the father lies over these events as well, especially in "Mr. Sweetly Indecent," in which the narrator, leaving a one-night stand early in the morning, runs into her father similarly engaged. But sex in these stories never carries any real charge. Instead it's a tentative mating of almost-strangers, never intimate even when the partners are "involved."

Broyard's greatest gift is for describing the ego battles waged at parties and in small groups; her understated descriptions of the fat, unpopular girl at a sleepover, of the smiling co-worker intent on stealing the heroine's boyfriend, of the pretentious graduate students at a dinner party are all maliciously accurate. And occasionally she finds a striking metaphor, as when a group of women tending a garden sink to their knees, "one after another, as though some invisible prophet were passing by atop the hedge before them." Too often, though, her language merely amounts to reportage on ordinary life, and every so often she descends into banality: One girl has "a feeling so strong she can almost taste it," another "is in a place alone with the music."

On the surface, the sameness of subject matter and language throughout the book looks like a triumph of competence. But it's also, more profoundly, a failure of imagination.

By Adam Kirsch

Adam Kirsch is a writer living in New York.

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