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People who define themselves by what they own or their preferred brand of clothing often mistake the possession of consumer goods for quality of life. This is the case for several characters in Michelle Brafman’s new book Bertrand Court, a blend of many previously published stories in a loosely connected narrative set in and around D.C. Two of these stories involve women coveting and stealing small personal items, which seems like a more nuanced expression of the materialism that pervades these stories. Many characters are so conscious of brands—of what they own and how much it cost, of their artisanal this and their hand-crafted that—that they become downright unsympathetic. What they own or consume becomes too involved with how they feel about each other. As one wife, Becca, muses about her husband: “He’d never complained … when she … went off for five days to a yoga retreat at Kripalu or attended a weeklong shamanic conference in Taos.” Rather, where they travel to, where they buy their lattes, the restaurants they patronize, the jewelry and clothes they wear all define Brafman’s characters to a disturbing degree.
And Brafman wants us to think about this. In the story “Harvard Man,” Tad finds himself temporarily unemployed and begins to dissolve a bit around the edges: losing his previous, confident identity, as though he was only truly himself when he had a powerful political job and the envy that it commanded. Another story illustrates the disastrous aftermath of a bankruptcy, when Robin, a dental hygienist, is suddenly forced to look at her now-penniless husband—and it is a long, cold look. She faces a grim reality with courage and, though she is angry at her husband, she doesn’t abandon him. But she’s not coddling him either: She deals with their predicament and, in the process, suddenly there’s much less mention of who designed their clothes or what eateries they will patronize. It’s the people, not the things, that grab the spotlight.
It’s difficult not to get caught up in all the entangled, ambivalent relationships in Bertrand Court. The story from the perspective of Rosie Gold—a woman who has a mild mental handicap—is one of the best. It’s not heavy-handed, but rather subtle and convincing. But Brafman’s book works best in the way these characters interconnect from story to story, maintaining the reader’s interest as a novel should: Rosie is Marcus’ sister; his wife, Robin, the dental hygienist, compares her family to that of her brother, Danny, a fantastically successful realtor. While Danny and his family prosper, Robin and her family prepares to double up with her in-laws in the unfashionable upper New York state. Robin compares her bankrupt family with Danny’s prosperous one, but nothing comes of the comparison: no sudden understanding, which, given that her family is facing complete disaster is perhaps not surprising. She’s just miserable and has no sudden revelations.
After a while, this book begins to resemble a tale of one big family in which the values are basically all the same. A bankruptcy or adultery may loom like a tornado ahead on the highway, but there’s still time to escape onto a side road. People thrash about in trouble in Bertrand Court, but never succumb to despair; there’s happiness and envy and worry over disaster, but the air of existential dread and desperation waft over these middle-class people like storm clouds that never touch down.