First Forays into Novel Writing Five Writers Explore Small-Town Life, Troubled Families, and Intergenerational Relations
Merle Rubin. Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor., The Christian Science Monitor
WHEN I was still young enough to be choosing books by their covers (pretty pictures and catchy titles usually caught my eye), my father let me in on the more sophisticated method of seeking out works of a particular author whose previous books I'd enjoyed. This method generally fails, of course, when it comes to first novels, which do keep coming out despite a faltering market for fiction.
The name Barbara Hall might perhaps be familiar to folks who scan the credits of television shows (she's written for "Northern Exposure," "Moonlighting," and "I'll Fly Away") or to readers acquainted with her young people's fiction. Her first adult novel, A Better Place, clearly draws on her knowledge of Hollywood and on her experience of growing up in a small town in Virginia.
The catalyst of this novel's action is Valerie Caldwell, who was the belle of every ball in the little town of Maddock where she grew up. After 14 years of trying to make it as a movie star in Los Angeles, including marriage to a semi-successful aspiring screenwriter, Valerie returns to her old stomping grounds. She's looking for a place where she can be "special" once more, and not just another pretty young hopeful in a sea of others just like her.
Valerie's dear old friends, Tess and Mary Grace, who once served as her admiring acolytes, are a lot less anxious to see Valerie again. The same goes for Joe Deacon, Valerie's former fiance, whom she ditched to seek out stardom. Even Valerie's own parents are less than delighted to have their little princess back home ordering them around again.
Hall tells the story of Valerie's attempt to defy Thomas Wolfe's adage, you can't go home again, from the viewpoints of her worried but open-hearted friend Tess; the still vulnerable Joe, who's married Tess; and Valerie herself. The author's insights into her characters' mixed motivations, her keen sense of humor, and her accurate portrayals of both small-town life and Los Angeles lifestyles make this a more-than-usually engaging read.
Kristina McGrath's poems and short stories have appeared in places like Harper's and the Paris Review, so if not quite a household name, neither is she a complete unknown. House Work, her first novel, is less a conventional novel than a series of intensely focused, lyrically descriptive vignettes: portraits of a working-class Pittsburgh family in the period 1945-67, seen through the eyes of mother, father, and youngest daughter.
Guy, a handsome charmer unable or unwilling to take on responsibility, fades into an alcoholic, erratic visitor. His wife, Anna, who once thought it a kind of sacred honor to look after her man, must cope with the hard realities of his shiftlessness. Louise, their youngest child, grows up in a broken home, sustained by her mother's strong faith in the power of housework - the countless acts of care and labor that go into making a home.
"The corners of sofas and floors taught compassion...; there was grace in the turns of the rocker; humility and pride in the scrub rags.... There was a certain way to do things to make life good. …