Nationality: American. Born: Huntington, New York, 27 April 1957. Education: Washington University, A.B. 1979. Family: Married Michael Zimmerman; one son. Career: Writer in residence, Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio, 1988. Awards: Ohio Aid to Individual Artists fellowship, 1985; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1987; short fiction award (University of Iowa Press), 1988. Agent: Tom Hart, 20 Kenwood Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02124, U.S.A. Address: 152 South Cedar Street, Oberlin, Ohio 44074, U.S.A.
Snap. New York, Ticknor & Fields, 1988.
Are You Mine? New York, Grove Press, 1993.
Life Before Death. New York, Scribner, 1997.
Polly's Ghost: A Novel. New York, Scribner, 2000.
Fruit of the Month. Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1988.* * *
Abby Frucht is a mistress of minutiae. In her novels and stories, love, lust, commitment, and betrayal are driven by detail. That oft-repeated dictum of fiction writing courses—"show not tell"—rules the roost in Frucht's work. She creates understated, highly visual worlds in the tradition of Anne Beattie: light on plot, heavy on tastes and smells and glimpses and the pondering of possibilities.
In her short story collection, Fruit of the Month, the character's epiphanies reside in sensual impression. In "How to Live Alone," the newly-widowed Nancy is trailed by a sense of her late husband's egocentric presence until she discovers a hidden stash of marijuana. While high, she rubs lotion into her skin and "watches as the cream disappears beneath her hands, into her skin, which has a reptilian look from the salt and sun." This moment of sensual indulgence allows her to keep her husband's ghost—and an eager male lover—at bay. She feels "self-absorbed and private," able to dream of a future all her own. In "Nuns in Love," Cynthia comes to accept the pretentious man who's courting her when she discovers they both appreciate pigeons, with their "noble heads." In "Fate and the Poet," the protagonist is so disappointed by her husband's gift, a tacky wilderness calendar—"the slick, bright images make her miserable"—that she's tempted to pursue a poet with whom she had an affair many years before. The question Frucht seems to pose is: are these sensually-inspired epiphanies frivolous, or born out of such deep existential angst that the sensual is the only way these characters can connect with the world?
In Snap, her first novel, Frucht lets Ida, one of her main characters, wise up to the potential emptiness of sensual impression. Her husband, Ruby, is so smitten with her that everything she does is a small miracle, including breaking an egg: "Ruby had never considered that such an act … could be so moving." Ida is put off: "I've turned my husband into a maniac. The way he touches me in bed, like a piece of Steuben glass." But this is also a woman who makes wedding cakes. When her husband engages in an affair she's practically wished upon him, she wants him back. Her desire to reunite with him is expressed through her gorging on a wedding cake, "the most beautiful she has ever made."
Much of Frucht's work is preoccupied with the shortcomings and triumphs of monogamy and the ways it satisfies the yearning for stability, yet cannot conquer the fundamental instability of desire. Licorice gives this theme a magical realism twist. Scores of people, initially women, are vanishing from a small midwestern town, driven by their desire for the sensual unknown. Liz, a temporary letter carrier, does not leave her husband and son, though she is drifting away from them emotionally. She sublimates her own lust for a local redneck by consuming unhealthy quantities of licorice. Here Frucht's juxtaposition of the serious with the frivolous raises the question: Is desire a primal force that mysteriously sucks us away from what we thought we were committed to? Or is it like candy—tempting, silly, unhealthy (but not very), all about sweet sensation and eroding tooth enamel?
In Are You Mine? Frucht takes her investigation of the nature of desire into new territory. In her earlier works, her characters are caught up in the offerings of their lovers. The poet in "Fate and the Poet" is imagined to offer a life of glamour and freedom; the redneck in Licorice represents "something primitive." In Are You Mine? Frucht explores unintended pregnancy as the ultimate unknown possibility, the fetus a tabula rasa ready to be inscribed with Cara's love and dreams. Frucht reveals the many ways desire can, both literally and figuratively, determine an existence. As Cara considers whether to have an abortion, she can want or not want this baby, humanize or not humanize it. Isn't this what Frucht's earlier protagonists do with the lovers they take and abandon? To Ruby in Snap, Linelle fulfills him until he realizes he wants to return to his wife. Then she is forgotten, her tears unheard, her importance in his life aborted.
In Life Before Death, the sensuousness of life takes on an existential importance for Isobel, who discovers she's dying of cancer. Herbal tea—the ultimate symbol of dilute sensation—is no longer enough for her. Where once "she thought the steaming mug contained all that was required of the whole galaxy, a swirling hot eddy of subtle tart flavor," now it is the "shard" in her breast that determines her universe. The cancer is both destructive and sexy; as it kills her it serves her as a metaphor of her own untapped wildness. The lump in her breast, her "surprise," "spread(s) rapturously through me." Frucht's prose in Life Before Death is more startling and less understated than ever before. Frucht's investment in minutiae undergoes a radical transformation; by exploring the true minutiae of life, the cell-level ravages in a cancer victim, Frucht tackles the greatest of paradoxes: the will to live despite the certainty of death.
In Polly's Ghost Frucht further develops the suburban magical realism she first explored in Licorice. Polly is a ghost who longs to participate in the life of the son she died giving birth to. As the prospect of death emboldens Life Before Death 's Isobel, the "real thing" transforms the always-in-control living Polly with the over-eager, awkward dead one. She's the sort of ghost who, while attempting to entertain her son with a falling meteor, crashes a plane into a lake. Despite this ethereal clumsiness, Polly embodies our ultimate fantasy about the dead: that they are pure feeling, missing us and caring for us just as fiercely as we do them. In Life Before Death, Isobel describes a row of old-fashioned porcelain dolls, recently burned by a museum fire, as "more alive dead than alive." It's a description Isobel herself will fit once the cancer slays her and all we're left with is the memory of her vibrant spirit. Polly, too, is at her best once she's a ghost, struggling to connect with the world in a way she never could while alive.
—Lisa A. Phillips
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