You might not guess from reading Anna Quindlen’s first novel, Object Lessons, that she’s been writing for The New York Times since 1977, currently in a syndicated column called ”Public & Private.” But there is something distinctly Timesian about her 12-year-old heroine, Maggie Scanlan, who, we are immediately informed, ”would never be an imprecise thinker.” A few childish scraped knees and bruised feelings aside, she’s so watchful and waitful, so soberly judicious and judiciously sober, that you can easily imagine her growing up to be a widely respected columnist, or even an editorial writer. It’s not that she’s implausible — only, as the coming-of-age heart and soul of this absorbing, observant Irish-Italian family novel, a little too measured, too good and gray.
She gets her coming-of-age over with briskly and efficiently, in one fell swoop of a summer. It’s the late ’60s, but the cultural and political delirium of the time is a distant rumor in Kenwood, the placid, middle-class suburban Irish enclave where Maggie and three brothers live with their parents, Tommy and Connie Scanlan. Like all the Scanlans in the book, they dwell in the intimidating shadow of the family patriarch, John Scanlan, a tyrannical tycoon who might have made some of the more despotic medieval popes quake and twitch.
Having amassed a fortune selling communion wafers and priestly vestments, John Scanlan has become a religious conservative, heaving anathemas in the direction of women who no longer wear hats to church, the newly de-Latinized Mass, and other shifting sands deposited beneath his feet by the Second Vatican Council. He is fond of intoning catechismally to his granddaughter Maggie, ”You’ve got your here, and you’ve got your hereafter, little girl. Take care of the first, and the second will take care of itself.” It eventually becomes clear that he doesn’t believe in the hereafter, and that his main interest in the here, apart from taking care of his secretary/mistress, lies in making sure Tommy and his other sons, all of whom work for him, ”bob and move and sway like marionettes.” His advice when Tommy announced his intention of marrying Connie, an Italian beauty he met at a dance contest, had been: ”If you think I busted my ass so you could marry some goddamn guinea from the Bronx, you’ve got another think coming.” But now the old man has taken a fancy to Maggie, showering her with money, sending her to private school, and scheming to move the family into a large house a few doors from his own.
Connie, already an outcast among the Scanlan clan, begins to feel estranged from her own daughter as well as her husband. Connie’s chance encounter with a bachelor from her old Italian neighborhood precipitates one of the crises that set the summer apart for her daughter. But Maggie is soon up to her ears in crises. She stumbles upon her icy, catty cousin Monica making love at the beach. Grandfather Scanlan has a stroke. Her best friend drops her for a faster crowd, which Maggie is drawn into when the kids start setting fires in a new housing development. She finds out that she was conceived out of wedlock, and that her mother is spending time with Mr. Martinelli, and that a mother and daughter can be brought together by their secrets.
The trouble is that Maggie remains through it all essentially a keen observer whose changes are reported more than dramatized or felt. She’s never as compellingly troubled as Connie or as vividly complete as John Scanlan, who, as the villain of the piece, nearly walks away with it, even on his deathbed. The stroke is his, but it’s the book that is left partially paralyzed. Still, it survives its occasional lameness by striking one authentic note after another, getting dialogue and significant detail just right. Quindlen has a sharp eye and an acute ear. She is obviously modeled on Maggie.