First, suburban sex crime. Now, evil-nanny syndrome. Suzanne Berne's first two novels are, as they say, straight out of today's headlines. The books themselves, thankfully, are anything but tabloid. In A CRIME IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD, her 1997 debut (and winner of the UK's Orange Prize), a quiet suburb is shaken by the rape and murder of a child, and an apparently normal family is rocked by violence of a psychological kind. A PERFECT ARRANGEMENT, Berne's latest, also takes place in the ordinary and terrifying sphere of domestic life --- in this case, what happens when a brilliant nanny, Mary Poppins style, enters (or is invades a better word?) the highly imperfect Cook-Goldman family.
A PERFECT ARRANGEMENT begins right smack in the middle of Mirella and Howard's morning mess (literal and figurative) as they struggle to get their daughter Pearl ready for school and their possibly learning-disabled son Jacob fed and settled, let out the dog, launch themselves to work --- and all the other innumerable things that seem to need fixing whenever you have ten minutes to get out of the house. The first chapter is from Mirella's point of view; subsequent chapters alternate between her, Howard, and the new nanny Randi.
Immediately we know that All Is Not Well with Randi. But we don't know, exactly, what the problem is or how it will play out, which sets up a terrific page-turning tension from the start. Without divulging too much, I can safely say that Randi herself exemplifies the chasm between the image of the perfect suburban/small-town family and the considerably more painful and disordered reality. For Randi is every homemaking stereotype come to life: nutritious meals, elaborate birthday parties, Christmas cookies, and creative games issue from her as if she were a walking, talking issue of Good Housekeeping.
So what's wrong with that? After all, Mirella too has bought into the idea that she must be the Perfect Mother, even though she is a full-time lawyer as well. She is torn by the warring demands of momhood and her profession (of course), just as Howard is washed by doubts about his career and guilt about a fleeting affair --- and if both Cook-Goldmans feel a bit like people we have met before, the honesty and intelligence of Berne's writing largely avoids cliche. It helps that the minor characters are particularly well drawn: Howard's brother and sister-in-law; the Indian family across the street; and Martha, the family's endearingly named golden retriever. Aging and essentially passive, the dog is a presence that seems to represent the assumption that life will unroll peacefully and inevitably, with only minor crises, day after day --- an assumption that is rudely shattered.
The dramas of the plot do heat up rather violently toward the end of A PERFECT ARRANGEMENT. There are confrontations galore --- very Hollywood, very cinematic --- that sit oddly with the low-key irony and realism that inform most of the book. And, in fact, this novel is not as subtle and bitter, as finely and economically crafted as A CRIME IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD. The older book has the clarity and lack of extraneous detail that comes with perspective --- indeed, it is remote from us in two respects: The point of view is that of a woman looking back on her 10-year-old self, and the action is set in the '70s. In the new novel, there is no escaping into the distance; the effect is more of being jammed up against all the untidy details of right now. Berne is brave to attempt this, and if A PERFECT ARRANGEMENT is not quite perfect, she has nonetheless written a smart, moving and highly readable book.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 22, 2011