Love you to death

Love Invents Us by Amy Bloom, Picador, pounds 15.99; Victoria Radin travels in Diaperland and meets a lethal Lolita

A few years ago Amy Bloom, who is an American psychotherapist, published a collection of short stories which covered the waterfront as far as bad behaviour is concerned. Come to Me encompassed, in sleek pared- down prose, a transvestite hairdresser who wears a blonde wig to make joyous love with his super-conventional client; a woman who conducts a long affair with the blessing of her husband, her lover's best friend; the sexual liaison of a stepson with his stepmother; a psychoanalyst who mates a client with her divorced son. What was graceful about these stories - which resembled case studies less rather than more than a lot of fiction - was the balance and compassion of the writing: their generosity and refusal to take sides.

Two of the stories were somewhat less copiously endowed with these qualities. Curiously, it is these that Bloom selects as the bookends for her first novel. The story that, virtually unchanged, forms the first chapter of Love Invents Us is narrated by a chubby suburban primary-school girl who gets her first taste of power by taking off her clothes and modelling the wares of a middle-aged furrier. A good deal of facile sniping at her aspiring and emotionally absent parents seeps through the self-conscious and often smart-ass tone of voice. There is even, camouflaged under a derisively stiff upper lip, a note of self-pity.

One finds oneself paddling, one oar short of a punt, toward Diaperland, that intensely American island first sighted by J D Salinger, and colonised, with varying degrees of malevolence, by the Sylvia Plath of The Bell Jar, Jayne Anne Phillips, Mona Simpson and now, it seems, by Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss. It is the world of the clever child as conceived by the adult and it lies close to archness and a cosmology of grievances.

Following the furrier, Elizabeth takes up with her English teacher at junior high school. Her age would be about 12; her lover is well aware of the literary antecedent. For all that she cannot bear his touch, nor the sight of his pitilessly described flesh, she is screwing him by the time she is 15. Or, one gathers, he is stroking and she is permitting, for she excels at eliciting the devotion you get when you withhold and manipulate. There is a minutely-described but unprurient scene in which the saggy Max, whose shoulders sprout grey hairs and dark freckles, uses a vibrator on Elizabeth, who responds in Cinemascope. Perhaps Max does it to gain some kind of power for himself; certainly to provoke some kind of sexual reaction. At any rate, it misfires.

Elizabeth is soon more properly in love with a fabulously-bodied black baseball player and spinning accounts of delirious adolescent sexuality. Nevertheless, the girl again withholds herself, this time through fear of pregnancy.

Where does the author stand in relation to her narrator? If the solution is meant to be found in the next section, which moves from Elizabeth's jerky verbal scrapbook to the third person, it doesn't work. Max, a quite knowing Humbert, takes the limelight, obscuring the squeaky timbre of the girlie voice Bloom has so effortfully conceived.

The author is more at ease here, rewarding us with Max's Nabokovian sense of irony. Bloom also lets rip with a stream of pithy observations on love, which is intrinsically obsessional and never many miles away from perversity. We can't choose those we love. It costs. Max dies of it. Elizabeth, who becomes a "burn-out" at 24, returns to help him die because even that is preferable to being alone.

We last see her at 40: hair home-dyed to cover the grey; single parent from a one night stand; suburban, tepid and contented. She is nearly unrecognisable, but perhaps that is the message. Or perhaps it is the result of authorial transference or authorial character-fatigue. Although there are many golden nuggets in this novel, the best of Bloom's stories held more roundedness and depth.

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