"A Secret Word," by Jennifer Paddock

Nov 17, 2008

Paddock's first novel, "A Secret Word," is set mainly in her home town of Fort Smith, Arkansas.

I had been aware for some time that down in Fairhope, Alabama, Jennifer Paddock, wife of the short story writer Sidney Thompson, was writing novels, but I had not gotten around to reading them. Then, recently, The Alabama State Council on the Arts awarded Paddock the 2008 Literature Fellowship in Fiction to help her complete her third novel. It was past time to pay attention.

Paddock's first novel, "A Secret Word," is set mainly in her home town of Fort Smith, Arkansas. This is a triple-headed coming of age novel. Three girls, two children of privilege and one not, are 16-year-olds when the story opens. In rotating chapters we learn their stories as each grows up and faces the travails of young womanhood.

Sarah is the daughter of a surgeon, but her parents are divorced and her dad is much married. Sarah will seek fulfillment in an acting career in New York City.

Chandler is the daughter of an attorney, but his firm and career are collapsing and he becomes depressed and then desperate.

Leigh, the third friend, not a junior tennis star and country clubber like the other two, is stuck in dead-end jobs and a dead-end marriage but escapes through sheer grit, and moves to Fairhope , Alabama where she will make a new start.

"A Secret Word" was chosen by the Arkansas Center for the Book for the "If All Arkansas Read the Same Book" statewide reading program in 2004.

Paddock's second novel, "Point Clear," has as its heroine 27-year-old Caroline Berry, who is from Tulsa, has completed an MFA, lives in NYC working at personal assistant type jobs, and means to be a writer of fiction. With a small unexpected inheritance from her grandfather, Caroline decides to take a month to herself, travels to Point Clear, Alabama, and checks into the Grand Hotel, which had been her grandfather's favorite place. There she will begin her novel in earnest.

As it happens, she has checked in just before Hurricane Ivan and she decides to ride it out, secretly, in her room, although the hotel has been closed and everyone evacuated.

Hurricanes are stimulating, potentially life-changing, as we have all known since at least "Key Largo." Ordeal, as Walker Percy has taught us, cures the soul of the malaise, of everydayness, and affords one the chance of a new beginning.

Caroline meets two men during her spiritual rebirth, both athletes, and in Paddock's world, real athletes are different from you and me. Walter is a championship swimmer who is depressed and may, repeat, may, have swum out into Mobile Bay to drown himself. Walter's fate is uncertain.

Caroline also meets and dates Daniel, a world-class tennis player, and one has hopes for that relationship. Caroline herself, like both Chandler and Sarah of "A Secret Word," and like Paddock herself, had been a serious tennis player. Both the Paddock novels are concerned with the need for discipline, to commitment to one's craft, be it tennis, swimming or writing, if one is to rise above comfortable mediocrity and the sadness that that can bring on.

And the novels are, of course, about being a talented, ambitious young woman in America, and the stresses still inherent there. This is to be taken seriously. Paddock is not writing chick lit here, but it isn't quite Louise Erdrich or Barbara Kingsolver, either. These novels are by a young woman about young women. Sometimes the writing reminded me of the fiction of Lee Smith, a highly literate yet readable and popular fiction. Sometimes, as in the description of what Caroline wore to her date, what she ordered, what she drank, etc., it seemed like the brand-name realism of Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz and the other literary brat-packers. Paddock seems like a younger writer who is still finding her own, singular voice, but she is well on her way.