Monday, January 23, 2006
Apart from You
Leonore H. Dvorkin gives us a complex character, Elizabeth Nye, a 20-year-old student, developed along the lines of Jane Austen’s Emma. Only the latter was an unconsciously self-deceiving fool, while Elizabeth is always conscious to her selfish advances in love. Dvorkin’s novel Apart from You (Wildside Press, 2000) is yet another work of fiction that explores the mystery of love, though certainly not just another one. A 28-chapter account of Elizabeth’s five-week love relationship with Brian Petersen, a graduate teaching assistant, Apart from You gradually reveals the presence of many undesirable things in a web of relationships: lies, deceptions, betrayals, infidelities, jealousies, transgressions, and rivalries. No wonder the reader might find Elizabeth’s character self-contradictory. She hates her father’s infidelities but engages Brian in a nearly identical situation, given that she is engaged to the absent Alan Abrams while she involves herself with the naïve and unwitting Brian, who is ignorant of Alan’s existence. The deal between Elizabeth and Alan that they’ll have complete sexual freedom as long as they are apart imparts a momentum to Elizabeth’s character that gradually reveals her two greatest powers: her strength of reason and her open-minded generosity.
Growing up indignant regarding her father’s infidelity and jealous of her younger sister’s coquetry, Elizabeth starts as a hazy image of a young woman with domestic diligence and a craving for privacy. As her relationship with Brian proceeds, her character sheds its blurredness and stands clear as a cloudless sky in contrast to Brian’s own mist of conservatism. A frustrated and sentimental virgin until his encounter with Elizabeth, Brian believes himself incapable of the sort of dishonesty Elizabeth practices with him until just before she leaves him to return to Alan. In the end, Elizabeth forces Brian to recognize that under the right circumstances, he too might break with conventions of morality, as she and Alan have done. Elizabeth’s return to Alan has rich implications of real love and honesty, which are rarities in this story. Elizabeth loves Brian, and he loves her, but she cannot let him keep her forever, as she has already committed herself to Alan. In the final chapters, the truth comes as a shock to Brian, but Elizabeth’s careful reasoning masterfully defuses its threat. Elizabeth becomes a woman standing on her own feet and Brian becomes a man who will eventually allow her to do so.
Apart From You is tightly written, closely developed around one central theme. However, Dvorkin also touches on the dilemma of homosexuality. Elizabeth’s ‘sympathetic sex’ with her gay friend Stevie is one instance of it. Descriptions of Donnie and her lesbian roommate Jean sound insignificant until it is revealed what an important part Donnie played in Brian’s life and what brutality Jean survived. For a while, the story feels as though it’s digressing from its plot, till the central conflict resurges with greater force in the twentieth chapter.
A wealth of minor and cameo characters adds greatly to the depth of the novel: the beautiful widowed neighbor of Elizabeth’s parents, Brian’s deceased parents and his two very different sisters, sundry university professors, Stevie’s French lover, Brian’s beloved cat, and numerous others. Together, these side characters compel readers to ponder their own views on a variety of subjects: death, domestic violence, women’s changing roles in society, loneliness, the madness of war, the importance of animals in our lives, and much more.
The final lessons one hits upon at the end of the story are moving and profound: Love is wealth, and great wealth can be a burden. Playing with emotions is folly because they are stronger than one’s wits. Above all, it’s love, and not possession, that gives lasting happiness.
Like her nonfiction book 'Why I’m Glad I had Breast Cancer' (Wildside Press, 2005), Dvorkin’s narration of the story is smooth and touching. Bits of humor surface now and again as well. An unusual feature is that the reader is allowed to view almost every event through more than a single pair of eyes, hence the objectivity that forms the wormhole to comprehension.
Of course, it is an adult novel. While sex is integral to the novel’s plot, gratuitous sex is nowhere seen in the book, and each and every sex scene beautifully drives the story ahead to its climax.
To read the first chapter of the novel, see the Dvorkin website: http://www.dvorkin.com/