Books: When Complications Occur

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Morrow; 302 pages; $18.95

Ah, to be sick and have Molly Haskell at the bedside. This memoir by the former film critic for Vogue traces the life and near death of Haskell's husband Andrew Sarris, film critic of the Village Voice, who is felled by a mysterious virus and confined to New York Hospital for six months. Blessed with a remarkable gift for clarity and self-reflection, Haskell uses Sarris' illness as a lantern by which she can shine a light on the dark corners of her life: her father's early death; what it is like to be married to an acknowledged expert in her field; her relationship with her mother, who practically moves in with her; and all the complications and compensations of love.

Cosseted by the intellectual hothouse of New York City film buffs, Haskell is unprepared for living a life out of her control. A high achiever accustomed to getting her way, she must now deal with the maddening coldness of the medical establishment, along with the crankiness and sorrow of having someone she loves sick beyond understanding.

Haskell throws just enough tantrums to keep us from hating her perfection and offers observations at once trivial and absolutely true. She explains the bargain of married love: "We seek affection, closeness, intimacy, togetherness, a buffer against chaos, then wonder why we no longer experience the frisson of sexual longing." She fears she may become one of the women waiting in the halls who no longer have husbands "to consecrate the banalities of life, turn them into little miracles of joy."

Haskell, a well-known feminist, comes to appreciate the instincts that link women "with their inborn sense of suffering," which takes her beyond simplistic movement ideology. "Envy and all the harsh judgments . . . are suspended as we return to some primal bond, where nurturing preceded rivalry." But as comforting as the bonds forged in the intensive-care unit are, she doubts they can last. "Friendships should begin slowly . . . If the opening chords are the life and death notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, there's no place to go from there."

At times, when Haskell goes on once again in her self-congratulatory way about what an erudite, incisive film critic and all-around wonderful guy she is married to, one has to fight the urge to stuff a sock in her mouth. But every few pages, she comes up with an observation so brilliantly right, so original, that one says instead, Molly, pull up a chair and please, please, keep talking.