Alice Elliott Dark
Simon and Schuster, $23
Tracy Chevalier
Dutton $21.95
Do you have a relative with Alzheimer’s disease who gets angry with you? Do you find it comforting to hear the conventional wisdom that you shouldn’t take this anger personally, it’s the disease talking? Alice Elliott Dark offers no such easy reassurance. In "Home," one of the outstanding stories in her new collection, In the Gloaming, early Alzheimer’s patient Lil Pepper has reason to be angry. Her husband is railroading her into a retirement home. Dark lets Lil speak for herself:
"How would you feel," Lil said, "if Jack did this to you." Charlotte sprang up, her arms crossed.
"Dad isn’t doing this to you. You’re making this much harder than it has to be."
"Do you really expect me to live in a place like that?"
"A lot of people do. A lot of people would consider themselves lucky to be there."
"Don’t talk to me as though I’m a child."
"You’re behaving like one."
"Because I want to live in my own house?"
"You can’t," Charlotte said. "Dad already signed the listing agreement."
"Without telling me."
"You signed it, too!"

Lil has overheard that she has Alzheimer’s, but she knows she is not a "disease talking." "I am still a person," she tells her husband. "You could look at me. You could look at me." "Home" is not a polemic, however, nor is Gordon Pepper a clichéd husband eager to free himself from a burdensome wife. Physically disabled though mentally intact, he will be living in the retirement home with Lil for part of the year, and they will spend the summers together at their seaside vacation cottage. Her feelings about him are mixed ("Occasionally Lil wondered what it would be like to live with a considerate man"), but she does not, on balance, seem to regret her choice of husband. Nor is this incomprehensible; she "observed with awe the fierce, visceral way he was alive, how much he brought to the most meager situations."

Alzheimer’s embodies two fears that are emblematic of our time: the existential fear of losing one’s identity and the practical fear of being burdened with the "36 hour day" of taking care of an incapacitated spouse or parent. Most popular writing about Alzheimer’s focuses on the latter. Even fiction about Alzheimer’s (or senility in general) has centered largely on the experiences of family members. Some of this fiction, such as Alice Munro’s recent "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," is excellent, but it is fiction portraying senile dementia from the outside. By taking the reader inside Lil Pepper’s head, "Home" reminds us in the most graphic and convincing way that the person with Alzheimer’s is more than a situation, a problem, or a shell of a former self. Dark thus offers an unusual perspective, one focusing on a fear that is much less widely acknowledged than the two already mentioned, the fear of being written off and institutionalized while one is sufficiently "still a person" to understand what is happening and to feel betrayed.

The best stories in Dark’s generally strong collection share the ability of "Home" to bring fresh perspectives to potentially banal circumstances. "Triage," for example, deals with rivalry between Ella and her grown daughter Margie. But it is hardly a stereotypical mother-daughter rivalry. It is primarily intellectual and spiritual. Who wouldn’t want to read further in a story that begins like this?

In her sixties, Ella began to take courses in theology. She’d always practiced some form of religion or another–Buddhism had taken up the greater part of her spiritual life, after she escaped from the dour pews of Wynnemoor Presbyterian–but she’d never gotten a proper overview of the entire subject. Now restive, ambitious, and with time on her hands, she hit the books wholeheartedly and found she had a knack for it. She was the oldest student at the seminary but was thin and erect as a girl, and the bloom of new ideas filled her with vitality.

"Triage" unfolds largely through a series of mother-daughter telephone conversations punctuated with interruptions by Margie’s baby. This narrative technique is well suited to reflect both the fragmentation of contemporary life and the intensity of Ella’s personality. (Of course, such a demanding woman, craving an immediate response, would pick up the telephone as soon as a new idea struck her.) Unfortunately, the story, like several of Dark’s others, reflects contemporary life in another way as well: the narrator intermittently lapses into psychobabble. We are told that Ella and Margie are not "supportive" of each other and that Margie had "internalized" her mother’s many tricks and "wasn’t blind to the dynamic of the situation." But the intriguing characters and otherwise sparkling writing in "Triage" easily override this flaw.

Not all the stories achieve the excellence of "Home" and "Triage." The title story, about a mother whose son has come home to die of AIDS, is by far the best known of Dark’s stories: it was made into an HBO movie and was included in Best American Short Stories of the Century. But it is not one of the best American short stories of the century. It is not even one of the better short stories of Dark’s collection. (Nor is it one of the best short stories about AIDS, which has inspired much more imaginative stories, such as Allen Barnett’s "Philostorgy, Now Obscure," in his The Body and its Dangers, and Other Stories.) "In the Gloaming" has its moments, though. The mother’s passionate, quasi-romantic feelings for her son are well portrayed. ("He spoke with an openness that astonished her. No one she knew talked that way–no man at least…. She found it hard work to keep up with him, but it was the work she had pined for all her life." Fifteen pages later, we are told, convincingly, "Suddenly she realized–Laird was the love of her life.") But AIDS is a perilous subject for fiction. Two traps await the writer. One is the trap of politicization and predictable complaints about homophobia and the need for money and resources for research and treatment. Worthy sentiments, to be sure, but sentiments it is almost impossible to give the freshness fiction requires. Dark avoids this trap. In fact, she barely mentions AIDS. Aside from Laird’s reply, "A new immune system?," in response to his mother’s practical question, "Can I get you anything?," he might as well be dying of leukemia. Perhaps this is why Dark slides so readily into the second trap. This story first appeared in 1993, when AIDS was almost inevitably a rapidly terminal illness, and terminal illness carries its own set of clichés. The dying person reunites with his family and accepts his fate. The story’s tone of gentle reflectiveness, no doubt intended to be poignant, often verges on cloying.

"In the Gloaming" has no hint of the struggle to live, nor need it. Dark is not supposed to be, in Ralph Ellison’s eternally memorable formulation, a "[cog] in the machinery" of a movement for the rights of people with AIDS. But she should offer readers more than a story that reads like a script for a "disease of the week" TV movie aimed at viewers seeking moral uplift from other people’s tragedies. Despite some nice touches, "In the Gloaming" is basically a formula story complete with platitudes ("A child shouldn’t die before his parents"), trite symbolism (Laird "[becomes] sweeter" in the evening, and as he dies, a fire his mother has lit in the fireplace is on the way out too), and the shopworn inspirational ending of a child’s death bringing his grieving parents closer together.

Endings are frequently Dark’s weak point. One otherwise inventive and absorbing story ends with the limp observation that "regret," "shame," and "loneliness" are "[t]he worst words there are." Another story, despite its many strengths, ends with the equally uninspired lament, "I need a sign." And an arch, heavy-handedly ironic final sentence mars an affecting tale of a town’s reaction to the plea of a dying woman who values animals over people.

By contrast, "The Tower" starts out engagingly and keeps getting better. Here is the opening:

I was a bachelor, unto myself and complete. I’d never married or even fallen in love. I suppose I could blame my parents for not setting a very attractive example in the department of family affairs, but the same goes for most people and yet they hurl themselves into the domestic maelstrom; so I can’t persuasively use that excuse. Anyway, it isn’t true.

Not the most likable man, perhaps, but at least he eschews reductive psychology and refrains from blaming others for his lacks. And when this jaded narrator does fall in love, the story unfurls surprise after surprise. I will not reveal these riveting surprises, except to say that "The Tower" turns out to have the rarest kind of originality in fiction–originality not only of plot but of characters and outlook. The former is the story’s vehicle for displaying the latter, as the characters show their distinctiveness through their thought-provoking reactions to the startling turns of events. It is "The Tower," not "In the Gloaming," that belongs in a "Best Short Stories" collection.

Tracy Chevalier’s novel, Girl With a Pearl Earring, offers another sort of originality. It imagines the life and thoughts of the unknown model for Vermeer’s painting with the same title. The subject has the appeal of the exotic, as well as obvious appeal for anyone interested in Vermeer. It also has the dangers of artiness and pretentiousness. Chevalier avoids these dangers almost entirely. She immerses us in fascinating details of life in seventeenth-century Delft, in addition to meticulously depicting the growth of the model’s artistic awareness. The first-person narrative in attractively simple language helps bridge the distance of time and place, contributing to the sense of immediacy.

Griet is sixteen when she comes to the Vermeer household as a live-in maid. Her father, blinded in a kiln accident, can no longer work as a tile painter, so her family needs a new source of income. When the Vermeers interview Griet in the kitchen of her parents’ house, her budding artistic sensibility is evident in the way she is laying out vegetables for the soup she is preparing. "The colors fight when they are side by side, sir," she explains when Vermeer asks why she has kept certain vegetables apart.

"You’re to clean his studio," her father tells her. Griet’s job also includes more mundane tasks: shopping, laundry, and dealing with the Vermeers’ brood of children, including the malicious Cornelia. Griet’s struggles and strategies in this complex and treacherous household are engrossing, as are her acute and well-phrased observations:

Throughout the preparations [Vermeer’s wife] Catharina remained in bed with [her infant son] Franciscus, tended by the nurse, serene as a swan. Like a swan too, though, she had a long neck and sharp beak. I kept away from her.

The heart of the novel is Chevalier’s depiction of Griet’s development: the development of Griet’s aesthetic sense, of her role in Vermeer’s work, and of her erotic interest in him. The unusual situation offsets the familiarity of the "coming of age" theme. From figuring out how to clean Vermeer’s studio "without seeming to move anything," Griet progresses to questioning him about his painting, and (with too-obvious symbolism) washing his studio windows on her own initiative to let in more light. Soon she becomes his assistant, purchasing paint materials and helping him make paints, a role she must conceal from his jealous wife, whose clumsiness has led him to forbid her to enter his studio in his absence. Eventually, Griet takes it upon herself to rearrange a cloth in a scene Vermeer is painting. Much of her artistic progress is enthralling:

The colors themselves made up for the troubles I had hiding what I was doing. I came to love grinding the things he brought from the apothecary–bones, white lead, madder, massicot–to see how bright and pure I could get the colors. I learned that the finer the materials were ground, the deeper the color. From rough, dull grains madder became a fine bright red powder and, mixed with linseed oil, a sparkling paint.

Such beautifully detailed writing conveys a sense of discovery strong enough to outweigh the occasional truism about art ("I wanted [my brother] to understand that white was not simply white"), as well as the faintly pat tone to Griet’s artistic progress. As the seventeenth-century maid turns out to develop an aesthetic sense worthy of respect from a great artist, Chevalier even has Vermeer say, "I had not thought I would learn something from a maid," a remark that accords too neatly with twentieth-century feminist and egalitarian concerns. In its own way, Chevalier’s book thus reflects, like Dark’s, a twentieth-century sensibility. But of course this is much more irritating in a novel set in the seventeenth century. The problem is not that Vermeer would not have said such a thing. It is that, as Flannery O’Connor pointed out in criticizing a draft of Cecil Dawkins’s story "Hummers in the Larkspur," "It appears as if [she] were trying to make a point. Even though the person might well have said it, [she] shouldn’t have it in there." Just as truth is stranger than (realistic) fiction, precisely because realistic fiction has to be plausible enough to induce suspension of disbelief, realistic fiction must appear uncontrived precisely because the reader knows it is contrived.

Griet’s emotional relationship with Vermeer is likewise gripping–and likewise slightly formulaic. The erotic tension between them, which intensifies after she becomes his model, is exquisitely portrayed. But guess what. He is a stereotypical callous artist whose real passion is his work. Fortunately, despite this hackneyed aspect of his character, the novel moves to an intriguing conclusion.