August 04, 2020

Messes of life revisited> Robinson’s 2nd novel tackles remarriage

You’re young. You fall in love. You marry. You have kids, a career, a showpiece apartment overlooking Central Park. Then it hits. You’re driving to a tennis lesson or coming home late from the ballet, and you realize you are no longer in love with your partner. The thought gets worse: Maybe you never were. What could you have been thinking all those years ago?

That may be when the big “d” becomes a big “r.” That’s “d” as in divorce, “r” as in reality. And those are the topics that writer Roxana Robinson takes up in her newest novel “This Is My Daughter,” about divorce, remarriage and the consequences of both on family life. Throughout August, she’ll be reading from her work in bookstores in Maine.

The families whose lives are on the block in Robinson’s second novel (the first, “Summer Light,” is set in Northeast Harbor) are upper-crust Manhattanites whose first marriages have tarnished. In the midst of all this cosmopolitan struggle and strain, Peter and Emma, whose story is at the center of this messy tale, fall in love and decide to go for it in a second marriage.

Their biggest task is integrating Emma’s 3-year-old daughter, Tess, and Peter’s 7-year-old daughter, Amanda, into the excitement and insistence of the adults’ new love.

Anyone who has been through marriage, divorce, remarriage and step-parenting knows this isn’t pretty work. Robinson doesn’t shy away from any of the emotions felt by the adults whose loyalties are divided, or by the children whose worlds are shattered. These characters may have the luxuries of upper-middle-class WASPs. But, emotionally, they bleed like anyone else.

Robinson has her own tale to tell of marital blisslessness (which, of course, she does not tell). But even though she’s been through the cycle — New York style — she assures she hasn’t told her own story in her novel.

“It’s a landscape I know well,” Robinson says, sitting smartly on a wicker chair on the porch of the Northeast Harbor summer home she shares with her husband, an investor.

In Maine, Robinson writes, hikes, sails and visits other friends summering from the city. Her alternate life takes place in an apartment on the Upper East Side of New York City. Robinson has one child from her first marriage. Her husband has two. It’s not exactly the same canvas as her book, but is, indeed, the landscape.

Today, Robinson is dressed in jeans and a blue tennis shirt. She wears no makeup and her brown hair is fashionably wispy. She is in her 50s and speaks with confidence and intelligence. Despite her casual look, it’s easy to imagine her elegantly dressed and at a cocktail party discussing literature (with three rather than four syllables).

With not quite as much comfort, she discusses her personal life. She’s determinately quiet on some points (the children), reserved on others (the details of a book she’s currently working on — “It’s about family life,” she says) and forthcoming about the flak emotional novels get when measured against the more male-style adventure story.

“There’s a real resistance right now in the world of letters against emotional engagement,” Robinson says. “The acceptable emotion is brutality. It’s violence, death, destruction and rape and murder. What male writers do is make it permissible, in fact, advisable, to resist emotional engagement. My books demand it. If you don’t become emotionally engaged in my books, they don’t work.”

In addition to her novels, Robinson has published two collections of short stories and a biography of painter Georgia O’Keeffe. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New Yorker and Vogue.

She has written since she was a little girl who loved dogs and horses, but the serious pursuit of writing began as a student at Bennington College, where her daily writing habits were shaped by Bernard Malamud. Her major influence, she says, is John Updike, whom she has described as “the best living writer in the English language.”

Robinson was born in Kentucky and grew up in Bucks County, Pa. A love of reading was de rigueur. Later, after a first marriage, she completed her English degree at the University of Michigan, and worked in the American art department at Sotheby’s as a fine-arts auctioneer. Eventually, she divorced and remarried, and in the 1980s, her fiction won recognition.

Critics of leading publications have lauded her work as having candor, insight, suspense, authenticity and emotional formidability. She is often compared to John Cheever — a flattering comparison, she says, but “really based [more] on subject matter than style.” The greatest goal, naturally, is to make her characters sympathetic. How do you turn the privileged class into the everyman class?

“The hope is that when you write, it becomes universal,” says Robinson, who considers herself, at least in part, a Maine writer. “If you explore a situation and explore it right — deeply and with compassion — then everyone may see themselves in that situation.”

Not every ex-wife has the advantage of learning about her ex’s remarriage while dining at Lutece, a luxurious French restaurant in Manhattan. But probably all divorced couples — rich and less-rich — do shed tears and exchange harsh words. “That’s my background, so that’s the group I have to write about,” Robinson says with a slight edge. It’s clear she has had to defend her WASP status in the past. Her point, however, is that the persistent truths are not the foie gras or mousse of duckling with juniper berries, but the loss of trust and devotion.

“I have sympathy for everyone in the book,” Robinson says. “I don’t get angry at them as much as angry at the situation. The stepfamily is incredibly complicated, and the chances of it succeeding are smaller than we think. I don’t claim to have answers. What I do in this book is say here’s a situation I find troubling.”

Roxana Robinson will read from “This Is My Daughter,” released by Random House, at 8 p.m. Aug. 9 at Port in a Storm bookstore in Somesville; Aug. 14 at Owl and Turtle Bookstore in Camden; Aug. 15 at Sherman’s in Bar Harbor; and Aug. 18 at Blue Hill Books in Blue Hill.

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