There are no kings, queens, princes or princesses in Death of a Black-Haired Girl, no highborn types at all, but still it is a tragedy. In this case, the protagonists are ordinary people -a professor, the young woman who is his student, and the young woman's father. The professor isn't a bad man but he coasts through life without much thought about the consequences of his actions and this time, he's gotten himself in trouble. He's had an affair with a student -a bright, impetuous, not terribly disciplined young woman who reminds him of what it's like to be young and passionate--and now he needs to get out of the affair. She doesn't want out and she winds up outside his house, yelling taunts to his wife and him. He comes out to reason with her. She gets even angrier with him. She pulls away, runs -or is shoved? It's not clear--into the road, and is hit by a car. Fatally. And this is where the tragedy begins. As in the tragedies of old, events concatenate in effects. By the end of the book, the lives of the professor and his wife and of the young girl's father are fatally changed. No dramatic deaths or pyrotechnic confrontations ensue, but the people most affected by the death don't return to their lives unchanged.
Around this story, baldly told, Stone gracefully weaves other stories -of a former nun, sometimes revolutionary in South America, now a low-tier counselor at the posh New England college where the professor teaches, of the dead student's actress roommate and her trials with her religious zealot ex-husband, and bits of pieces of the stories of the other actors in this drama.
Early in the book, the student, Maud, drops off her class essay for the professor, Brookman, to read. It's on Marlowe's Faustus and she has zeroed in on one passage in it:
Faustus has asked Mephistopheles "how he manages to wander about tempting obsessed intellectuals while doing time in hell." "Why this is hell," says the Diabolus, "nor am I out of it."
That response could be the hallmark for this book, because it's about people making their own hells, whether they intended to or not.
Stone is an acute observer of ambience and societal trends. The college where Bookman teaches is a prestigious one but it is under attack from the decaying city around it. Gates, formerly unlocked and open to all, are now double and triple locked. Only the safe are allowed in but even they aren't always safe. As to the city outside:
... the small children in the old wooden tenements that Norman Rockwell liked to people with his folk didn't know jump-rope rhymes anymore, couldn't play stickball or hopscotch or choose up sides going one potato two potato. In summer the basketball courts were empty. Grandma weighs ninety pounds, she's on crack, mom's a slave or turning tricks at interstate rest areas, adolescent dad's working on his prison tats or wearing curlers for his roomie. All the graffiti is black.
Some might have thought tat the two parts of the city ... didn't intersect, but they did. Heroin had found a niche on both banks of the Mill River, its glint detectable to the aware in such unlikely realms as fashion photography. Junkie chic had not disappeared and heroin still outsold cocaine.
Late in the book, Brookman reflects on all that has happened: "Can I have brought down all this death in life on us [just] through my fondness for a pretty girl?" Yes, he has, but maybe that's what tragedy looks like in the Brave New World we live in now.