Amanda Bright@home

by Danielle Crittenden

Warner, 323 pp., $23.95

YOU PROBABLY met Amanda Bright on May 25, 2001, when the Wall Street Journal began serialization--its first ever--of Danielle Crittenden's novel "Amanda.Bright@home." The first chapter appeared in the print edition, with the rest weekly through Labor Day on the Journal's website. Over the summer, it provoked dozens of reader responses, including this plaintive one after the last installment: "This is the end?"

Well, no. Two years later, Amanda is back, in a book of the same name (minus the name-splitting dot). For those who haven't been introduced, Amanda Bright is a conflicted Washington, D.C., mother who gives up a post at the National Endowment for the Arts to stay home with her children, Ben, age five, and Sophie, three. She's married to Bob Clarke, who prides himself on being an idealistic lawyer for the Department of Justice instead of a private-sector sellout. She never misses a chance to point out that she and her husband use different surnames, as if trying to convince herself and all around her that her identity has not disappeared along with her paycheck.

Once, when Amanda was channel-surfing to find a cartoon, she happened upon a show where a woman was transforming shoeboxes into animals and lace-trimmed jewelry boxes. The kids were immediately interested, while Amanda couldn't change the channel fast enough: "God, she would rather be dead than spending her afternoons glue-gunning shoe boxes!" Instead, she spends much of her time avoiding or enduring her children, referring to them at one point as "Velcro monkeys" whom she's glad to shed to shop. They never climb on her lap for a story, present her with a bedraggled bouquet, or cover her face with grape-juice-flavored kisses. The book opens with Amanda urging her children: "Just go--go upstairs, do something, watch a video, I don't care."

Any full-time mother who can truthfully say she has never uttered something along these lines has either a nanny or a halo. But if we don't take some time to smell the roses, build the Lego tower, or dress Her Royal Pint-Sized Highness in our best silk scarves, we may as well stay behind our desks. The children, in fact, are bit players in the book. Amanda's friends, Bob's career, and their marriage seem to get more ink than Ben and Sophie. When Bob gets what he thinks is the break of a lifetime, the story switches to follow it, becoming more a chronicle of marital stresses and Washington intrigue.

Bob is elated when he's chosen as the lead investigator for the government's case against Megabyte, the country's largest software manufacturer headquartered in--where else?--Washington state. Other thinly veiled references abound. Grover Mudd, the gossip columnist for the Washington Post, is Lloyd Grove, the reporter who had a role in Crittenden's real life when he described an unfortunate e-mail she sent. Amanda's children are on scholarship at "The Center for Early Childhood," which is Cleveland Park's venerable Victorian-housed National Child Research Center.

This is Crittenden's first foray into fiction. Her 1999 "What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman" should be on every young woman's reading list; its advice will counter the conventional wisdom prevailing on most campuses. Her essays and reviews have appeared in many publications, including this magazine, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and the Independent Women's Forum magazine, the Women's Quarterly, of which she was the founding editor.

Crittenden has said that her idea to write a novel, instead of more of this earlier style of work, began percolating after she reviewed a batch of feminist novels with identical, formulaic, fairy-tale-in-reverse plots: Angelic woman finds strength to leave boorish husband and runs off with "some weedy, left-wing academic guy" to become "a potter in Santa Fe."

No one can accuse Crittenden of being formulaic, and the book has several bright spots, such as the wonderful description of the school that almost expels her son for waving a contraband cookie in clear violation of the "Just Say No to Nuts" policy and a poignantly funny scene in which Amanda accompanies a stay-at-home dad to see his play opening at a nursing home.

But a comment from one of the early readers still rings true: "Both [main] characters are so repellent, in a very subtle, everyday way." Most of the others are worse. There's Susie, a spectacularly selfish television personality who has retained enough of her ebbing beauty to have an affair that nearly brings down Bob's career. She is the kind of person who actually says things like, "If you're not on TV, you don't exist in this town." The women in Amanda's exclusive play group are as rich and shallow as crème br lée; when she was introduced, "they greeted her with the same feigned enthusiasm with which they accepted their children's 'finds' from the backyard." They enjoy discussing their plastic surgery options, obsessing about their hothouse-flower children, and lounging poolside "as still and majestic as the gilded figures on Egyptian sarcophagi."

So for moral support, Amanda calls her college friend Liz, who scandalized their Brown classmates by bearing four children and actually marrying their father. Liz, a former women's history major, clearly relishes being a mother: "Spawn, apparently, turned out to be compelling little creatures when they were your own and not someone else's selfish indifference to the world's looming food and ozone shortages." She tells Amanda that others won't respect what she's doing if she herself doesn't. "Own it, Amanda--own your time, your identity." Amanda does make some small strides in this direction: enlisting the kids to help banish demoralizing piles of clutter, making a dinner without take-out containers. But just when you think she's actually going to start being comfortable at home, there she is planning what outfit she'd wear on her first day back at work.

Those plans are put on hold when an unplanned pregnancy intrudes. She greets the double-striped plastic wand as if it had announced inoperable cancer. ("It's so awful! It's just so awful!" she sobs as she collapses in her husband's arms.) Bob, meanwhile, is so apparently enamored of a woman's right to choose that he lets her make all important decisions. Whether Amanda is wondering if she should to return to work or carry their third baby to term, Bob steps deferentially out of the equation, assuring her that it's her decision and he'll support it. Maybe he's trying to be supportive, but he comes across as spineless.

Which is better than her housewife-turned-antiwife mother, a caricature of Betty Friedan. She belittles Amanda for marrying too young (at age twenty-six) and leaving her job to care for her children; news of a third pregnancy precipitates a relational Antarctica. Of course feminism is about choice, she snaps at Amanda before hanging up on her, "it was never about this choice."

In most of the nation's capital and its closest suburbs, that view has been swallowed whole. The area has one of the highest concentrations of double-income families in the country, so a full time mother would be lonelier here than in, say, one of the bland exurban McMansions that Amanda and Bob abhor. The couple met at a keg party on Capitol Hill and never manage to escape the milieu in which those without access to power are invisible.

Still, part of Amanda's conflict is self-inflicted. Even in Washington there are mothers who can find at least a little joy in spending their daytime hours with those they love most and who recognize that while adults' needs may have changed with the times, children's haven't. One wishes that Amanda would make an effort to find them--or at least go out and buy a copy of Crittenden's "What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us."

Susie Currie is a stay-at-home mother in suburban Maryland.

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