Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Crooked Maid, by Dan Vyleta

The Crooked Maid could be the prose adaptation of a black & white photo of barely post-war Vienna: a gritty and damaged city, but one with a fierce survival instinct. Vyleta adds the odd dash of colour to his novel -- a pilfered red hat, an eerie blue glass eye, the stranger's red woollen scarf -- but they are few. This is a novel that crosses genre lines, sitting equally well on mystery, love story, crime drama, and historical fiction shelves.

Like the city itself, the characters have come through the war years with injuries. Their various physical deformities are merely the visible manifestations; the psychic scars are profound. None of them trusts each other, and we readers don't trust any of them. Vyleta's characters are a hardened lot who have suffered at the hands of both the Soviets and the Nazis.

Anna Beer returns to Vienna at the opening of the book. She is coming home to reunite with her husband, psychiatrist Dr. Anton Beer, whom she'd left years before after discovering his scandalous infidelity. She finds their apartment relatively intact but empty, and thus begins her search. Someone claims to have seen Dr. Beer in the Soviet camps; someone else is sure he's dead. Some children at play find a badly mutilated corpse in a cellar, and Detective Frisch invites Anna to the morgue to see if it might be that of her missing husband. Vyleta's description of the porter is about the best introduction to a morgue I could imagine.
Frisch led her into the building. In the gateway stood a porter's booth. While Frisch signed them in, Anna found her reflection in its glass; the light-green blouse and auburn hair, her lipstick glowing brightly in her pale and powdered face. She had dressed as though she were on her way to collect her husband at the train station; then on to a picnic in the gardens of Schönbrunn. Behind the glass, the old, pockmarked porter concluded she must be staring at him. He flashed her a grin of yellowed teeth. A half-eaten sausage lay on an open newspaper, looked grey and waxen in the booth's dim light.
The face of the corpse is so battered that Anna tells the detective she doesn't believe it's Dr. Beer, but she can't be certain. For one thing, the corpse has a glass eye, which Anton did not have, or at least not when she last saw him. Staring out from the ravaged, decaying face, the glass eye is a thing of macabre and uncanny beauty.
Anna held her breath and kept staring at the eye. It was very intricately worked, the iris structured into layers, clear amber grains embedded in three shades of blue, each a snowflake pattern radiating from the pupil's central well. In the bright light of the morgue the eye's milky glass had turned transparent, become infused with something like an inner glow. A root system of capillaries spread from the depths of it: tender, light-pink tendrils fanning out towards the surface and the light. The lid that clung to its outer edges gave it a frame of amber lashes, each gently curving outwards, away from the glass. It was a lovely, human eye, alive with an intelligence intrinsic to its design. The dead man watched her coldly, without judgment.
Also returning to Vienna in the same train compartment as Anna is the young Robert Seidel, who had been away at boarding school in Switzerland. He too comes back to a chaotic and unwell household:  his step-brother, Gustav, is a former Gestapo officer now on trial for patricide. Robert's widowed mother rambles around their big house in an opiate-induced fog. Holding the household together is Eva (known at other times to other people as Anneliese), a young, embittered, hunch-backed maid who has a strange connection to Dr. Anton Beer.

Robert's step-father, who died after crashing through an upper storey window (perhaps pushed by a drunken Gustav, although the jury formally acquits him of the murder charge), built up a successful factory before the war with the help of his Jewish business partner, Rothmann. When the Nazis banned Jews from owning property, Rothmann deeded his house and his share of the business to Herr Seidel with the understanding that he could return and re-claim his share after the war, should he survive that long. Now, in 1948, there is a gaunt stranger wearing a red woollen scarf over his tattered coat, and he's watching the big house from a distance. Robert's addled mother assumes that it's Rothmann, returned to make his claim. She pleads with Gustav to "deal with him".  Robert fearfully asks Gustav what he has in mind, and the elder step-brother explains the family's history with Rothmann, and why Mrs. Seidel, originally from the lower classes, holds such a grudge against the Jew.
"Those were glory times in any case; we never had so many servants. Life would have been grand, if it hadn't been for that Jew. Every other day he'd come for dinner, sometimes with his whole family in tow. Father practically fawned on him. It was, 'Try this cigar, Herr Rothmann, I had it sent from overseas,' and, 'Take the good chair, Herr Rothmann, here, by the fire, it's chilly out,' 'Such a delight to see you, you must come back soon,' on and on -- and me already in the police! It was then your mother and I started discussing Party business over dinner. Good God, we had such fun. One time, early on -- I remember it like it was yesterday -- Rothmann leaned over to your mother, very discreetly, mind, speaking under his breath, and instructed her how to hold the fork, 'in a good household.' You should have seen her blanch. I swear, she signed her soul over to the Party and cheered Rothmann's entire race to the gas chambers just for that 'in a good household.' Not that he was wrong, mind. Your mother handled cutlery like she was digging a latrine." 
The end of a war never means the end of hostilities; those may take generations to calm down, if they ever do. People stole, betrayed, and killed to survive the war, and there are always old scores to be settled. Gustav reminds young Robert that nearly everyone in Vienna has skeletons -- literal, figurative, or both -- in shallow graves.
"You know," he finished, patting the basement wall, "she's a little touched, your mama, but the truth is that half the people on this street, they have a Jew walled in their closet. God, how they are hoping the mortar will hold."
After reading The Crooked Maid, I learned that it's a sequel to an earlier novel, The Quiet Twin, which is equally acclaimed. I'm relieved to read that they work just fine as stand-alone books, and I look forward to my next visit to Vyleta's Vienna.

Note:  The painting above is by Kees Van Dongen (1877-1968) and is titled "Corn Poppies".  It hangs in the Houston Museum of Fine Arts in the United States, and its subject reminds me of Eva, the crooked maid, in her incongruous, stolen red hat.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves, by Stephen Grosz

I read this book on the strength of its Guardian review, which described the stories in this collection as blurring the line between psychotherapeutic case studies and philosophical essays. The reviewer, Talitha Stevenson, remarks on the author's restraint and humility:  Some of the insights are his, and others belong wholly to the patients, but in either case,"Grosz writes with such artful self-effacement that his cases seem to speak for themselves."

Neurologist Oliver Sacks writes similar collections of case studies/essays, but he tends to focus on the more unusual and radical effects of brain injury, as in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. When reading Sacks, we're tempted to say "Oh, thank the statistical gods, that's unlikely to be me!", whereas when reading Grosz, again and again I thought, "Yes, that could well be me."  And it was discomfiting to see my own psycho-snafus held up to me in the mirror of this book.

In his chapter titled "Confidence", Grosz examines the influence parents exert upon their small children. He notes that the contemporary tendency to dole out empty praise is as harmful as earlier generations' habit of spewing out thoughtless criticism. He cites a study which shows that children who are praised for trying hard outperform those who are praised for being clever or excellent. If you stop to think about it for a moment, this makes perfect sense:  Why would a child continue to try harder after hearing that he is brilliant, or he is the best at doing whatever it is?  Praise the child for his diligent effort, however, and he'll continue to strive.

As I read this chapter, I looked back on my own parents' child-rearing methods, which probably fell into the category of gentle but relentless criticism -- "Well, that's not bad, dear, but it could be much better..."  At 52, I feel quite sure that nothing I ever do will be good enough, no matter how hard I try. Yet I am equally sure that my parents felt that they consistently encouraged me to try harder by keeping the bar just out of reach.

So many adults feel the need to give children guidance, advice, lessons.  Grosz observes the work of an octogenarian child psychologist, Charlotte Stieglitz, who tends to avoid the subject of praise vs. criticism and simply spends time with children.
Unhurried, she talked to the child, but more importantly she observed, she listened. She was present. Being present builds a child's confidence because it lets the child know that she is worth thinking about. Without this, a child might come to believe that her activity is just a means to gain praise, rather than an end in itself. How can we expect a child to be attentive, if we've not been attentive to her?
If, as adults, we wind up in the psychotherapist's office, it's usually because we are in pain, and we want it stopped. Healers of all kinds, however, take their time before dispensing analgesics, because pain can be a valuable diagnostic tool. Grosz points out that patients who deny, mask or dull their own psychic pain will be unlikely to find its root cause. Like a leper whose nerve damage has left him numb, those of us who numb our emotional grief also run the risk of injuring ourselves further as a result.
In 1946, while working in a leprosy sanatorium, the physician Paul Brand discovered that the deformities of leprosy were not an intrinsic part of the disease, but rather a consequence of the progressive devastation of infection and injury, which occurred because the patient was unable to feel pain. In 1972, he wrote: "If I had one gift which I could give to people with leprosy, it would be the gift of pain." Matt [Grosz' young and self-destructive patient] suffered from a kind of psychological leprosy; unable to feel his emotional pain, he was forever in danger of permanently, maybe fatally, damaging himself.
Oddly, one of the chapters that jolted me most was "A Safe House", in which a middle-aged businessman spends much of his therapeutic time talking about his house in France. He tells Grosz that merely thinking about the house reassures him, gives him a sense of security. When the apocalypse strikes, when life in the UK becomes untenable, he shall retreat to his safe house in France. During meetings, or when he can't sleep, or when he recalls his very abusive and violent childhood, he withdraws into the house, thinking of potential renovations, redecorations, extensions he might do. He sketches floor plans, examines paint samples, details what is on each shelf in the pantry. Throughout the session, the man acknowledges that his house in France gives him comfort when life gets stressful, just as he had wished for an escape route when his mother had been viciously beating him when he was a boy. Overall, though, the session seems to be a calm and reflective one, not emotionally tumultuous. And then his hour is up.
"Mr Grosz?"
"I don't really have a house in France. You do know that, don't you?"
Emma is a PhD student in her 20s who is suffering a deep depression. Grosz repeatedly asks her how she feels about this or that and is struck that she always responds by telling him what her father or her boyfriend, Mark, thinks about the matter. This exchange could easily have happened between Mr. Grosz and me. Like Emma's, my father was forever telling me what I should and shouldn't feel or think. What I did feel or think was either wrong or immaterial, so I lost sight of it altogether. Emma is obviously in the same boat.
"The conversation with my dad was like the conversation with Mark -- both were telling me what I really feel, or should feel." Emma said that she didn't understand how people knew what they really felt. "Most of the time, I don't know what I feel. I figure out what I should feel and then just act that way."
As he listens to a patient who talks herself out of every intimate relationship, Grosz is reminded of Ebenezer Scrooge.  (I love the idea of a Dickens character as a psychotherapeutic anti-hero.)  But it's true -- Scrooge cannot bear the thought that love ends. Actually, Scrooge finds any loss unpalatable. But protecting himself against losses has a steep cost.
Scrooge spends his evenings comforting himself; as he reads his deposit book, he thinks to himself, "You see? No losses, only gains." Ultimately, Scrooge changes because the ghosts unpick his delusion that you can live a life without loss. They undo his delusion by haunting Scrooge with the losses he has already experienced, the losses now being endured around him, and the inevitable loss of his own life and possessions.
Why do we stay in toxic relationships? Often for the same reason that we stay in any number of other unhealthy situations -- we are averse to change. Grosz cites a woman who had worked on a high floor in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  After seeing the plane crash into the neighbouring tower, Ms. Panigrosso grabbed her purse and ran down the stairs.  Other colleagues stayed at their desks, and one actually returned to the office to retrieve her daughter's baby pictures, which she'd left in her desk. None of them survived.
In Marissa Panigrosso's office, as in many of the other offices in the World Trade Center, people did not panic or rush to leave."That struck me as very odd," Marissa said. "I said to my friend, 'Why is everyone standing around?'" What struck Marissa Panigrosso as odd is, in fact, the rule. Research has shown that, when a fire alarm rings, people do not act immediately. They talk to each other, and they try to work out what is going on. They stand around.
I read this account and shuddered. Having been badly burnt as a teen-ager, I do not stand around when I smell smoke or hear a fire alarm. I don't ask my neighbours if they know what's going on; I don't wonder if it might be a false alarm. I don't worry about what people might think of me as I exit the building as hastily as I can. This, however, seems to be a result of my own previous trauma. Ms. Panigrosso and I appear to be in the minority when it comes to emergency evacuations.
And research has shown, again and again, that when we do move, we follow old habits. We don't trust emergency exits. We almost always try to exit a room through the same door we entered. Forensic reconstruction after a famous restaurant fire in the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Kentucky confirmed that many of the victims sought to pay before leaving, and so died in a queue. After twenty-five years as a psychoanalyst, I can't say that this surprises me. We resist change.
But what about life situations that are only figuratively engulfed in flames? Do I move as purposefully toward the emergency exits? Do I even know where they are? Or do I loiter about my desk, wondering if it might be a false alarm, or if the firemen will extinguish it, solving the problem for me?  I've been in both personal relationships and work environments that were essentially on fire, and what did I do? Dithered, hung around, hoped things would magically clear up on their own. Grosz has two clients in destructive circumstances, and they too are paralysed.
For Mark A. and Juliet B. the fire alarm is ringing. Both are anxious about their situations. Both want change. If not, why tell a psychoanalyst? But they are standing around, waiting -- for what?
In my case, my own psychotherapist put this very question to me some years ago, noting that my life was indeed on fire: "What are you waiting for?"  The answer came to me instantly.  I was waiting for someone to give me either permission or orders to exit, or to make the necessary change. Just as people who are near death may hang on until a loved one assures him that it's okay to let go, I was waiting for someone else to give me the signal. My therapist's question prompted me to give myself permission.

Grosz speaks of the myriad external distractions we employ to avoid confronting our internal malaise. One patient comes to her sessions and tells him that she is very upset about a natural disaster here, a war there, and a long list of social ills right in her neighbourhood. I wondered what this woman was doing in the therapist's office -- after all, isn't it perfectly normal to be upset about the woes of the world? Part of Grosz' skill, however, is seeing through what his patients present as the problem.  Elizabeth's wars and disasters were nothing more than red herrings.
After about six months, Elizabeth confided that the first thing she felt in the morning was "a depressed, choking anxiety". She woke frightened, sometimes shivering with fear, until she remembered a problem, some urgent situation that required her to get out of bed and face the day. There are various ways to circumvent depressed, anxious feelings. It's not uncommon, for example, to exploit sexual fantasies, or to use hypochondriacal worries. Elizabeth employed her disasters to calm herself -- they were her tranquilliser ...
It's also not uncommon to use some large-scale calamity, or someone else's personal disaster -- the newspapers are full of both -- to distract oneself from one's own destructive impulses, and I soon noticed this tendency in Elizabeth ...
But we can sometimes exploit a disaster to block internal change. Like Elizabeth, we can take on a catastrophe to stop ourselves feeling and thinking -- and to avoid responsibility for our own intimate acts of destruction.
We've all been cornered at a party, feigning interest in the fluctuations of east Asian currencies or a re-hash of last weekend's cricket game, praying that the speaker will need to refill her glass or his plate very soon. In one chapter, Grosz describes a patient whose dullness does not reflect a stagnant life -- it's something quite different, and I'll never look at a tedious person in the same way again.
Graham C. was boring. One night, his girlfriend, an economist who worked in the City, told him so. They had just had a dinner party, during which she'd watched him, again and again, thoroughly bore the person he was talking to. "Can't you tell when someone goes dead behind the eyes?" she asked. Then she broke up with him. A few weeks later, the senior partner at Graham's law firm called Graham into his office. He told him that his work was fine, and that he appreciated the long hours he was putting in. But he warned Graham that the clients weren't taking to him. If Graham wanted to make partner, clients would need to feel a loyalty to him; they should want to call him with their problems. Graham saw the future he'd imagined for himself slipping away. Worried and depressed, he came to see me. For the first few months of his analysis, Graham bored me too ...
Graham's being boring was aggressive -- it was a way of controlling, and excluding, others: a way of being seen, but not seeing.
Grosz gives a chapter to one of his long-time friends, Tom, who accepted Grosz' referral to another therapist, Dr. A. When they meet for coffee, Tom relates what his therapy has revealed to him.
"... if you're frightened of being criticised, you're probably pretty critical. And what a surprise -- it turns out that I'm a critical person. It turns out that when I'm not finding fault with myself, I keep busy reproaching others. I won't bore you with the one thousand and one things that are wrong with the decor in Dr A.'s office -- or with Dr A. herself. You can imagine." Tom leaned forward and put his hands on the table. "Do you know the word captious?"
I had a good laugh at this, both because I've had a very similar realisation about myself, and because that very word -- captious -- is all but stalking me in my reading, as if mocking me. Tom goes on to share another belief that I've harboured all my life, despite the fact that I have no evidence to back it up.
" ... there's still part of me that wants to believe that if I stay nice and clean, and work really hard, and I'm a big success, I'll be protected from depression and anxiety."
The problem with being captious, of course, is just that:  You are always finding fault, both with yourself and others, but usually more the former.
Tom's minutiae-- the smell of his sweat, the mud on his shoes; how opposite this view of himself from my own picture of this big, gentle, civilised man. I thought about his fear that if he was known, if he was seen as he believes he truly is, he would be found dirty, broken. And being dirty and broken -- how could he love, or be loved?
I mentioned to a friend that I was reading this book and that I found it very sensitive and insightful. I admire how Grosz helps his patients see what lies hidden beneath their ordinary coping mechanisms. My friend replied, "Well, yes... but what does he say about changing one's behaviour? It's one thing to understand what caused the problem, but does he say  anything about fixing it?"

I paused and thought.  "No. No, he doesn't." But does that diminish the value of the book? I would say not. Perhaps that would be a different book, or a sequel. Diagnosing the root cause of a problem is of course the first step, an indispensable step, and the insights that Grosz relates in The Examined Life are valuable as they stand. Changes or solutions may or may not follow. For myself, I know that I'm now more likely to make important changes in my life without waiting for someone else to grant me permission or encourage me to do so, and for that, I thank my therapist. On the other hand, knowing that I would be much happier if I curtailed my constant stream of self-criticism hasn't actually done much to curb it. The case studies in The Examined Life, however, encourage me to look at my own idiosyncrasies and upsets, and then to look, with gentler inner eyes, more deeply beneath them.

Friday, February 7, 2014

White Teeth, by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith
Wow. I remember the fuss when this book appeared in 2000 -- the effusive praise, followed by the train of awards. Now, 14 years later, I realise that none of it was excessive. Probably not even adequate.

With her jaunty, quirky, uneven style, Zadie Smith's voice defies membership in any clique, gang or group. Like her genetic and ethnic composition (both themes running through White Teeth), her voice is gloriously unique.

Each of her characters is, on the surface, a collection of meticulously chosen eccentricities, but beneath the façades, there is substance. Smith takes care that, at some level or another, we can relate to each and every one of them.

As the book opens, Archie Jones sits in his car, a Hoover tube running from the exhaust pipe, in what is quite possibly the most memorable and funny failed suicide bid in all of English literature.
Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway. At 06.27 hours on 1 January 1975, Alfred Archibald Jones was dressed in corduroy and sat in a fume-filled Cavalier Musketeer Estate face down on the steering wheel, hoping the judgement would not be too heavy upon him. He lay forward in a prostrate cross, jaw slack, arms splayed either side like some fallen angel; scrunched up in each fist he held his army service medals (left) and his marriage license (right), for he had decided to take his mistakes with him. A little green light flashed in his eye, signaling a right turn he had resolved never to make. He was resigned to it. He was prepared for it. He had flipped a coin and stood staunchly by its conclusions. This was a decided-upon suicide. In fact it was a New Year's resolution.
But even as his breathing became spasmodic and his lights dimmed, Archie was aware that Cricklewood Broadway would seem a strange choice. Strange to the first person to notice his slumped figure through the windscreen, strange to the policemen who would file the report, to the local journalist called upon to write fifty words, to the next of kin who would read them. Squeezed between an almighty concrete cinema complex at one end and a giant intersection at the other, Cricklewood was no kind of place. It was not a place a man came to die. It was a place a man came in order to go other places via the A41. But Archie Jones didn't want to die in some pleasant, distant woodland, or on a cliff edge fringed with delicate heather. The way Archie saw it, country people should die in the country and city people should die in the city. Only proper. In death as he was in life and all that. It made sense that Archibald should die on this nasty urban street where he had ended up, living alone at the age of forty-seven, in a one-bedroom flat above a deserted chip shop. He wasn't the type to make elaborate plans -- suicide notes and funeral instructions -- he wasn't the type for anything fancy. All he asked for was a bit of silence, a bit of shush so he could concentrate. He wanted it to be perfectly quiet and still, like the inside of an empty confessional box or the moment in the brain between thought and speech. He wanted to do it before the shops opened.
Overhead, a gang of the local flying vermin took off from some unseen perch, swooped, and seemed to be zeroing in on Archie's car roof -- only to perform, at the last moment, an impressive U-turn, moving as one with the elegance of a curve ball and landing on the Hussein-Ishmael, a celebrated halal butchers. Archie was too far gone to make a big noise about it, but he watched them with a warm internal smile as they deposited their load, streaking white walls purple. He watched them stretch their peering bird heads over the Hussein-Ishmael gutter; he watched them watch the slow and steady draining of blood from the dead things -- chickens, cows, sheep -- hanging on their hooks like coats around the shop. The Unlucky. These pigeons had an instinct for the Unlucky, and so they passed Archie by. For, though he did not know it, and despite the Hoover tube that lay on the passenger seat pumping from the exhaust pipe into his lungs, luck was with him that morning. The thinnest covering of luck was on him like fresh dew. Whilst he slipped in and out of consciousness, the position of the planets, the music of the spheres, the flap of a tiger-moth's diaphanous wings in Central Africa, and a whole bunch of other stuff that Makes Shit Happen had decided it was second-chance time for Archie. Somewhere, somehow, by somebody, it had been decided that he would live.
And why was Archie calling it quits?
Archie Jones attempted suicide because his wife Ophelia, a violet-eyed Italian with a faint moustache, had recently divorced him. But he had not spent New Year's morning gagging on the tube of a vacuum cleaner because he loved her. It was rather because he had lived with her for so long and had not loved her. Archie's marriage felt like buying a pair of shoes, taking them home and finding they don't fit. For the sake of appearances, he put up with them. And then, all of a sudden and after thirty years, the shoes picked themselves up and walked out of the house. She left. Thirty years.
Jenny Sterlin, narrator

White Teeth's cast of characters, although they've collided in Willesden, come from Jamaica, Bangladesh, India, and British academia. They are Muslims, Hindus, atheists and Jehovah's Witnesses, all trying to find their own niches in England without surrendering their identities. All are sympathetic, all are vividly memorable.

I've written before about the pros and cons of audio vs. printed books. So much, really, depends upon the narrator.  I listened to White Teeth, and when I'd finished, I seriously considered starting again at the beginning, perhaps to loop through this book again and again. I believe Jenny Sterlin's narration quite possibly made the audio book, if possible, even finer than the original text. Her wry intonation and timing are impeccable. The review of this recording in AudioFile is dead on: "The number of characters, let alone accents, requires dazzling skill to perform--and prepare to be dazzled--as Jenny Sterlin works some kind of miracle with this wildly mad and impressive book. A marvelous audio experience."

As Archie Jones is wont to quip, "Can't say fairer than that."

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Ice Storm, by Rick Moody

It's a rare day when I prefer a film to the book on which it was based.  In fact, Lost Horizon is the only example that comes to mind. It's been a good many years since I saw Ang Lee's production of The Ice Storm, but I think it has a slight edge over Rick Moody's novel. For one thing, the film had a young Christina Ricci in the role of the sharp-witted, adolescent nymphomaniac, Wendy. Even now, it's Ricci's Wendy who sticks in my mind much more indelibly than Moody's.  Still, the book was worth reading.

I picked up the novel for a couple of reasons.  The synopsis said it was peppered with nostalgic early-1970s detail. This was the era of my own awkward, painful adolescence -- I feel no nostalgia for it per se, but I felt an almost morbid fascination with every mention of toe socks, game show host Gene Rayburn, shag carpets, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull. These were things most of us were relieved to bury in an unmarked grave, to be forgotten as quickly as possible, but it was hard to stop wondering what social or aesthetic embarrassment Moody was going to unearth next. Also, the book was set in suburban Connecticut, where I spent nearly a decade of my adult life.  I'm not pining for that, either -- in the late 1990s, much of the state struck me as hollowly materialistic and status-obsessed, and I was curious how affluent New Canaan had looked to Moody two decades before.

There is also the title theme:  it doesn't matter how wealthy you are in Connecticut when winter hits. Like the expensive houses and landscaping it coats, ice is exquisite and mesmerising, but it can also be deadly. It sparkles, but it only reflects; it doesn't illuminate.

New Canaan sits on Connecticut's gold coast -- the stretch of land that runs east-west along the Long Island Sound. It's effectively a strip of leafy, posh New York suburbs, home to the families of bankers and stock brokers who commute in and out of the city by train.  Benjamin Hood, Moody's main character, is indeed a stock broker, although he's quickly falling out of favour at his firm as a younger member seems to have captured the fancy of the partners with his new-fangled schemes. Ben is also cheating on his wife, Elena, with their neighbour, Janey Williams. The Hoods have two children:  Paul, who is away at boarding school, and Wendy, a 13 year-old who is simultaneously idealistic and prematurely cynical. The rapidly loosening social mores leave Wendy even more unmoored and confused than puberty alone would have. She's restless, life is ugly, and grownups generally suck.
Somewhere the popular girls were trapped indoors with their ephemeral crushes, the infatuations they shared with no one. And elsewhere the half-dozen poor boys of New Canaan High, whose fathers would have to go out into the snow and run the plows, watched TV from couches covered in flame-retardant vinyl. The sleet and snow turned the last light a sullen yellow. The sky looked awful, nauseating. Wendy wanted to know why conversations failed and how to teach compassion and why people fell out of love and she wanted to know it all by the time she got back to the house. She wanted her father to crusade for less peer pressure in the high school and to oppose the bombing of faraway neutral countries and to support limits on presidential power.
Wendy's mother, Elena, is also ill-prepared for the sexual liberation of the 70s. She is keenly aware that her marriage is stale and uncommunicative, but she has a household to run and two children to consider. She plunges into every self-help book and method she can find (and at that time, self-help gurus were sprouting like the grass on Greenwich lawns). The Ice Storm takes place on the weekend following Thanksgiving 1972, and in the middle of serving a dinner of holiday left-overs to Ben and Wendy, Elena realises that none of her books, tapes or chants will save her. Her life is going to pieces just as surely as the war in southeast Asia.
And the turkey was no longer moist. This conclusion was unavoidable. Above all, she and Benjamin agreed on the necessity of moist turkey. This was an area where progress had certainly delivered miracles. And yet this moist quality seemed to last through the first serving only. One had to guard against dryness in leftovers. One had to reheat gravy. And Elena had failed here. She knew that if she ever suffered a real and debilitating mental illness, its onset would not be the result of a failed marriage or because of twentieth-century spiritual impoverishment; it would be caused instead by these details, by a pen mark on the designer pantsuit she'd bought for the holidays, by the slight warp in her Paul Simon album, or by the acrid taste of old ice cubes. These small things led to a bottomless pit of loneliness beside which even Cambodia paled.
The Hoods' teen-aged son, Paul, decides to spend part of his Thanksgiving break in New York, pursuing the affections of his wealthy, graceful fellow student, Libbets Casey.  As with all teen-agers, Paul knows more than his elders, most especially when it comes to sex and drugs.
He had perused Davenport's dog-eared copy of the Kama Sutra; he knew what love was. He was going to pursue this education. He didn't want to be as sad as his parents.
Ben Hood's capacity for introspection equals his insight into office politics and the latest market trends: practically nil. He can't see that his mistress is mentally unstable, nor that his wife is unhappy. His affair is not making him especially happy. In fact, when Elena finally confronts him about it, he claims it makes him feel wretched. But he encourages her to pull herself together, and they'll go off to a party whose guest list includes 20 or so of New Canaan's well-off couples.  To the shock of both Ben and Elena, the hostess greets them in the foyer with a large bowl to receive their car keys.  It's to be a 'key party', which ends with the women picking a random set of keys from the bowl and going home with the man who owns them. Ben and Elena retreat to their own car to recover and discuss this development. After a few moments of chilly (literally and figuratively) discussion, Elena concludes that she intends to participate in the key game and returns to the house, leaving Ben, bewildered, sitting in their car. He reflects only for a moment.
His capacity for drinking surprised even him, but it paled in the face of his capacity for self-deception. His denial was significant enough to suppress even any notion of denial. He concealed in himself all notions of motive. So as he lifted the pewter flask again -- warm from its proximity to the heating vents on the dash --any questions about the key party or its farcical possibilities failed to occur to him. Where his motives were concerned Hood was like a blind man without a cane. He was night diving. He was flying without instruments. He was going to this party.
After an aborted tryst with Janey Williams in her guest room earlier that afternoon, Ben Hood had discovered Wendy in the basement family room with the Williams' older son, Mike, both in an incriminating and semi-dressed state. While her parents are out at this swinging party, Wendy walks back over to the Williams house, half hoping to resume her frolics with Mike. Instead, she finds only the younger son, Sandy, at home. Where is Mike?  Sandy suggests that he's probably out wandering around in the wintry weather looking for Wendy.

Sandy is 13, prepubescent but precocious in the way children of affluent, suburban parents tend to be. He explains that his talking G. I. Joe action figure now repeats only one phrase when the dog-tag chain is pulled. When Wendy pulls the cord, though, the doll spits out a different phrase. She returns it to Sandy who merely contemplates it, torn between childlike hope and adult doubt, the former likely to fade away before his voice starts to change.
Together they stood over the prone body of G. I. Joe with Lifelike Hair, now supine on the folded comforter at the foot of Sandy's bed. Somehow the idea of trying him again, of going back to the well one more time, felt pointless to Wendy. She recognized a moment here in which she saw the machinations of chance in the universe, and she didn't want to ruin it. Sandy was adorable in this light. He couldn't wait. He wanted to dispatch Joe, because he had some dignity wrapped up in the notion of inferior goods and dumb culture and stupid America. He was one of those kids who spent hours in front of the television shouting That would never happen. Sandy Williams expected to be cheated. He was ready for it. And it came to pass almost every time, and in this way the world seemed good and true.
And while the parents are negotiating the 'key party' at the neighbours' house, Wendy and Sandy are confronting a sexual exploration of their own, made slightly creepy by Moody's descriptions of their immaturity.
And something strange was happening right then. Wendy noticed Sandy was sitting on the bed with his pillow across his lap. Some emotion was overtaking them. She knew what this meant. She knew that Sandy was emerging briefly from under the rock where he lived.
The following morning brings an awkward collision, when Wendy, having spent the night in the guest room with Sandy, bumps into her mother, who had come home with Jim Williams. Neither of the adults knows the whereabouts of their own spouses, but both vaguely agree that their children's behaviour requires some disciplinary attention. While Elena bumbles around to fix a breakfast in Janey Williams' kitchen, Jim takes it upon himself to deliver the lecture, oblivious to any twinge of irony or hypocrisy.
Now, your mother, Williams went on, your mother . . . left the party with someone else. I want to be honest about this. I have to be straight with you. Okay? And so we can figure out what kind of situation she's in. She has taken advantage of this opportunity that same way we have. She might be happy about it, she might not. We don't know. But she can't call now, because the phone lines don't work and probably there are trees down along the roads. The electricity is out, and the roads are dangerous. And that's why she's not back yet. But when she gets back and when Mike gets back we will all sit down, Sandy, and probably Wendy you can count on sitting down in your house, too, with your dad, and have a long conversation about what's happened...
This is serious. Imagine, Sandy, if Wendy were to get pregnant right now, when you are thirteen and she is -- what? Thirteen, too? Imagine what Wendy would have to go through over at the high school in her maternity gowns, trying to cover up the fact. And then how would you two take care of the baby once you had it? Who's going to take care of it while you are at school? Who's going to pay for the obstetrical care or the delivery of the child? Do you expect us to carry the expenses you two incur through stupidity? Hell, no! And who's going to teach this kid the morals it needs to have? Its morality is already a little sloppy based on the job you're doing now. Get it?
The carnage wrought by the ice storm, both in emotional and physical terms, exposes the glass houses of New Canaan as costly but fragile vessels whose contents rarely live up to expectations -- their own, each or others'.