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Washington Post Book World
Friday, October 10th, 2008
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Between Here and April

by Deborah Copaken Kogan

Suffer the Little Children

A review by Ron Charles

What could be better than working as a daredevil photojournalist, jetting around the world's hotspots and sleeping with alluring strangers?

Motherhood, of course. Forget fame, danger and sex: Nothing compares with the thrill of tucking little ones into bed after supper.

Or so Deborah Copaken Kogan told us in Shutterbabe, her wild 2001 memoir of capturing war photos and male booty. Fresh out of Harvard, this Potomac, Md., native ventured into Afghanistan, Bucharest and the Soviet Union during some of the most alarming crises of recent history. But then she found the man of her dreams and settled down in Manhattan to raise a family.

Well, the seven-year itch is an equal opportunity employer.

Kogan's first novel, Between Here and April, is an amalgamation of autobiography, true crime and melodrama. Her heroine is a wife and mother named Elizabeth, a former globetrotting journalist from Potomac, Md., who found the man of her dreams and settled down in Manhattan to raise a family. Trouble is, the glow of domestic paradise has faded. Making cupcakes for the grade school has lost its thrill, and arguing about housework during sex is a turn-off. At 41, married to a workaholic, Elizabeth feels as though she's "playing house all alone," and it's an exhausting, dispiriting routine, more than enough to make a prematurely retired international journalist pine for war in the mountains of Afghanistan.

With Between Here and April, Kogan confronts in the most dramatic terms imaginable the feminist issues that seemed too cutely brushed aside in her memoir. She has a good ear for the basic patterns -- including the clichés -- of married life among the professional class. Mothers everywhere will relate to Elizabeth's efforts to keep her once exciting career alive with a hodgepodge of freelance jobs that are neither satisfying nor lucrative: "writing press releases about antifungal medications and a new brand of sneakers for a viral marketing firm, comparing the suction strength of various breast pumps for an online parenting site."

When the story opens, Elizabeth and her husband are on a date at the theater, a rare chance to get out of their apartment and away from the kids. Medea seems like a poor choice for this -- or any -- romantic rendezvous, but as a model of bad parenting Euripides' tragedy is pretty clear, and it also gives a fair indication of this novel's heavy-handedness. No one can endure that play without flinching, but it has an even more powerful effect on Elizabeth: During the climatic scene when Medea begins slaughtering her two little boys, Elizabeth suddenly recalls a brief friendship, 35 years earlier, with April Cassidy in the first grade. She begins to panic, stands up from her seat and faints in the aisle.

The bulk of the novel is spent trying to understand why she reacted so dramatically to "Medea" and the memory it triggered. With her therapist's encouragement, Elizabeth begins researching what happened to April, the girl she knew for only two months in 1972. She finds a story in The Washington Post that describes a woman who murdered her two children -- April and her sister -- and then committed suicide. This part of the novel is apparently based on fact. In a note provided by her publisher, Kogan writes, "I would like to protect, if possible, the surviving father from unwanted inquiries, which is why I wound up writing this as a novel, not as nonfiction."

Kogan's heroine, however, has no such qualms about protecting anyone's privacy. Elizabeth hopes to restart her career by making a documentary about this tragedy, a project that inspires many more questions, "all the while circling back to the most obvious, least answerable, and most terrifying question of all: How could a mother kill her children ?"

Elizabeth interviews people in Montgomery County who were connected with the doomed family, and she finds transcripts of the mother's psychiatric sessions during the weeks leading up to the murders. Her research seems ridiculously easy -- everybody remembers in colorful detail the events of 35 years ago or left helpful records -- but the story is so engaging that I just shrugged and raced along. That's also a credit to this narrator's wonderfully appealing voice: funny, frustrated, likable, totally candid about her desires and failings.

The novel's rising suspense stems from the way Elizabeth's investigation gradually takes over her life. As she looks deeper into the horrific death of her first-grade friend, her attention turns to April's mother with surprising sympathy. "I wanted," she says, "to understand her: to crawl under her flesh, to feel her heart beating in my chest, to see a world turned hopeless and dim through her own eyes." That desire drives her research, and Elizabeth begins to identify with this accursed mother in the most alarming ways.

Although the eventual crisis approaches Medea proportions, without Euripides' grand characters, the novel slides toward bathos. It's awfully exciting, but I wish that Kogan had exercised a little more subtlety. Her narration falls into such a clear schematic pattern, highlighting its feminist points like the syllabus in a women's studies seminar: post-partum depression, medical gender bias, rape, surrogate caregivers, domestic inequality, pornography, etc. Maybe that makes Between Here and April the perfect book club book, but I suspect that readers -- working mothers especially -- will find these complex issues are resolved here too neatly and sweetly. ·

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.


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