By: Dennis McFarland
Reviewed by: Julia Oliver
Henry Holt and Company, 2007
The bestselling author of School for the Blind and The Music Room returns to his Alabama roots for the setting of his seventh novel. Several months after her father’s death in Point Clear, Ellen, who writes poetry in the Cape Cod area of Massachusetts, learns that her younger sister Bonnie, who had given up trying to have a stage career in New York and returned to the patriarchal estate, has married and is pregnant. Bonnie’s husband, whose first name is Pastor, is the head minister of the evangelical Church of the Blessed Hunger.
Ellen is currently in a trial separation from her husband while their young son is at summer camp. She talks her brother Morris, a college professor in Ipswich, into going to Point Clear with her to check out the youngest sibling’s situation. After their mother died, these two, who have had income from trust funds since their twenty-first birthdays, were sent to boarding schools in Connecticut. Morris is not eager to travel to Alabama again so soon after they went there for their father’s funeral. As he points out to Ellen, it would be as cheap to buy a ticket to Paris as to Mobile. But they go and try to make the best of the visit, even when Pastor, after learning that Morris is gay, sets up an intervention to reprogram this new brother-in-law. (The logical cast members to be stereotyped or caricatured would be the fundamentalist preacher and his parents, but the author allows them to rise above those levels.)
The writing in this domestic drama is sophisticated, textured, and introspective. With the exception of one amazing, hair-raising epiphany, the storyline is pretty much sedentary. The real surprise to readers in this neck of the woods may be that Point Clear, the idyllic bayside area that has inspired a lot of imaginative and nostalgic fiction in recent years, is portrayed here more negatively than positively. Morris, whose mind we’re in most of the time, is an intellectual snob and glibly supercilious (although his partner Richard, whom we get to meet in reflective flashback, seems like a great guy). Morris admits to thinking of himself sometimes as “a character in an Edward Albee play.” Other ruminations include “Over the weekend Morris had been preparing himself for the foray into Alabama, which, oversimplified, meant girding himself for inevitable brushes with racism, homophobia, unwholesome cuisine, and pandemic bad taste...” and “Thank God Ellen had escaped Alabama as well, for Morris wouldn’t have been able to bear it if she’d taken up writing poems about the charms of crawdaddies and mimosa trees and swamp-side shanties...At least, if she had to be so enthralled by the natural landscape, she was enthralled by one worthy of Thoreau rather than Faulkner.”
Julia Oliver is a novelist and journalist in Montgomery.