Constance’s Brooklyn apartment has been invaded by her ex-husband, Jerry, who lives in Philadelphia, and their daughter, Joanna, a sculptor who lives – or lived – “in the South” (as if people in New York don’t need anything more specific than that to fully understand) with a boyfriend. The husband is in town to explore history; the daughter is angry about a perceived injustice, somehow related to race or if not that then political views about the Iraq war. In any case, Jerry is in town to hunt for the “Brooklyn Circle,” a scheme from the 1920’s that was partially built – an elevated train like Chicago’s Loop. Jerry, though, is sure that traces exist and so he and Con (she calls in sick to join him) go hunting. And indeed they find bits and pieces. (Intriguingly, she spots the first trace and for some reason doesn’t tell him.) Somewhat incredibly, they climb one of the structures. Once they’re on top, Jerry sprains his ankle and Con has to shed her reluctance (which seems to define her) in order to help him. This is a terrific story, one of my favorites of the year for sure. Subtle, but not too subtle, the Brooklyn Circle is a fine metaphor for the lives of this family: there are still fragments of love, they are “almost a family” as the story tells us, and it was once a great idea; but the pieces aren’t connected – worth preserving, but not restoring. And it is clear how the protagonist, Constance, has changed. She is at the beginning timid, although she’s a lawyer (and hates the fact that she’s timid, and denies it), she’s unwilling to take interest in Jerry’s hobby and she’s also unwilling to fight for her daughter’s rights. But by the end she has admitted there is something to Jerry’s interest (if not quite enough for them to reunite permanently) and resolved to look into her daughter’s case. There are also some interesting questions here about Black-Jewish relations and their place in society as a whole; the trampling of civil rights by the Bush administration; the crutch of alcohol; the role of women – but I’m not quite sure how those facets of the story fit. This is one that bears re-reading. I’m looking forward to reading how other people react to it.
November 12, 2007: “Brooklyn Circle” by Alice Mattison