Love, loss loom in 'Dangerous Age'

The world of Ellen Gilchrist's fiction is sprightly, sexed-up, engaging and deeply unnerving. Characters meet, fall in love and marry with alarming breeziness; they are removed from the scene by death or divorce with equal dispatch. Inattentive readers will not fare well, since characters are apt to undergo profound life changes in the space of two pages.

Judging from the size and avidity of Gilchrist's readership, people are happy to pay the close attention her work calls for. "A Dangerous Age" is Gilchrist's 20th book of fiction (she has also written poetry, a book of nonfiction commentaries and a memoir), and her characters and families loop from one book to the next, popping up in new configurations from New Orleans to Oklahoma to North Carolina. These persevering characters become friendly, familiar presences and enact William Faulkner's famous decree: They do not merely endure, they prevail.

"A Dangerous Age" puts them to the test, though. The book opens happily, it would seem, with an announcement of the upcoming marriage of Miss Winifred Hand Abadie to Charles Christian Kane. The announcement is followed by a discussion by the bride's cousin of the wedding party's clothes. But in a characteristic display of novelistic legerdemain, Gilchrist moves from an observation of Winifred's recent weight loss -- she was dieting so she could fit into her wedding dress -- to this startling sentence: "Except the wedding never took place because Charles Kane perished on September 11, 2001, along with three thousand other perfectly lovely, helpless human beings."

With a speed that mimics the effect of that day on many Americans, the lives of the characters in this novel are turned inside out. "A Dangerous Age" becomes a book about war on the home front, and its main characters -- Olivia, Winifred and Louise -- become warriors.

They seem poorly suited for the task. Winifred, not quite a widow, is adrift; cousin Louise, a sometime documentary filmmaker, is between movies. Only Olivia, a Tulsa newspaper editor, seems to have a grip on what is happening to the country, but she is uncertain about how to respond. When she comes to Raleigh for Charles' funeral, she says, "The publisher actually suggested I might want to do an editorial about coming to this funeral ... The effects of terror on the individual, et cetera, as opposed, I asked him, to the effects on what else?"

"You aren't going to write about it, are you?" Louise asks.

"I hope to God I won't," Olivia says.

But how can she help it? She gets new material every day. After Olivia returns to Tulsa, her cousins Winifred and Louise go to Washington D.C. Brian and Carl Kane, identical twin brothers who were cousins to Winifred's intended, enlisted on 9/12/01, and Brian's tank in Afghanistan hit a mine; now Brian is at Walter Reed for reconstructive surgery, his brother is with him, and Winifred and Louise join them. The handsome men meet the pretty women; marriages and pregnancies quickly follow. But these actions are not so much heedless as purposeful, sometimes almost grim. We feel the urgency of these characters who have been jarred from idle, prolonged youth into a frightened adulthood. They marry now not only because they can, but because this may be their last chance, a perception that makes their haste sweeter and more fraught.

Olivia, meanwhile, pursues her own course. Busy with her newspaper, she doesn't intend to rediscover her ex-husband, Bobby Tree, and she certainly doesn't intend to fall into bed with him and back into love with him, but all of those things happen. After she becomes pregnant and they decide to remarry, he comes to her and says, "I am a sergeant in the United States Marine Corps. I have been called to duty by the commander in chief, and I will go and do my work." After he is finished speaking, Olivia says, "When you come back will you quit the reserves?" "I'm a Marine, Olivia. I take it seriously." "So do I, Bobby," Olivia says, surprisingly heartfelt.

All of the women in "A Dangerous Age" are attached to the war on terrorism, and all take it seriously, not only because the men they love are in its path, but because, as Olivia says, she loves "the dark, sweet heart of the American people, and I trust them to keep the ship of state sailing on through any storm." Too skilled a writer to attempt to win over a readership by lecturing it, Gilchrist shows us a world filled with characters racing toward happiness even though sorrow and loss hover over all of them.