A Soft Place to Land by Susan Rebecca White

May 17, 2010

A Soft Place to Land, White's new novel, has only traces of her humor. It is a family story start to finish and is intelligent, serious business.

White's first novel, Bound South, published in 2009, only one year ago, began with a wonderfully comic scene in which it was learned the beloved African-American family maid Sandy was a transvestite and?although there were comic strands throughout?the novel evolved into an upper-middle-class Atlanta family story. The Parker family, lawyer-father, housewife/aesthete mother, a daughter, Caroline, and son, Charles, all grew and changed, some of them quite a lot.

A Soft Place to Land, White's new novel, has only traces of her humor. It is a family story start to finish and is intelligent, serious business.

Into this upper-middle-class Buckhead, Atlanta family, the Harrisons, crisis enters on page one. In March of 1993, Phil the lawyer-father and Naomi the housewife-mother, while on a romantic vacation for two to the Grand Canyon, are killed in the crash of the Ford trimotor plane that was swooping them through the canyon for an exciting close look at the natural wonders.

When the will is read, by John Henry Parker, the lawyer from Bound South, everyone learns that the two daughters, Julia 16 and Ruthie 13, half sisters, are to be separated. The Harrisons obviously never thought this would actually happen but it does.

Their girls are left mostly orphaned. Maybe it would have been better if they were entirely orphaned because Julia, whose dad, Matt, Mom had left for Phil years earlier, lives back in small-town Virden, Virginia and has remarried. He and his new wife, Peggy, a twenty-first-century wicked stepmother, are super-strict and narrow Christian fundamentalists. And not in a good, understanding, nurturing way. Female gorillas, one has learned, try to kill the previous offspring of their mates. So it is sometimes with us more evolved gorillas.

In any case, the separation of the two sisters, who were like one in their closeness, is more than wrenching. It is as if the Siamese twins Chang and Eng had in fact been cut apart by a chain saw.

Ruthie goes to live in San Francisco with her aunt and uncle, getting by far the softer place to land. Life there is different from Buckhead, but she adjusts. In San Francisco, she is, at first, something of a bumpkin and must adjust to the world of diverse sexuality and Chez Panisse. In fact, Ruthie will become a chef.

Julia was a wild child, an actress and an aspiring writer, and feels she is in small-town hell. She rebels, is perpetually punished and grounded, and suffers miserably until she becomes 18 and can get out on her own.

Julia writes a memoir. In the twenty-first century, everyone does, of course, but Ruthie is horrified to see her parents' secrets and her own revealed in Julia's book. What are the limits of memoir? Do we have a right to tell other people's stories as well as our own? When dealing with a writer of any kind, fiction writer, poet, memoirist, should we be constantly on our guard? Should we implicitly understand that to a writer, it is all?and by all we mean your secrets, not hers?material, grist for her mill? It would be best and safest if we did.

As the two sisters mature they change and grow apart until, sadly, they have lost the nearly mystical connection they once had. White follows their separate lives and, to the reader's relief, she brings them back together again. Although they are radically different people as adults, they will reconnect. Much has been suffered, much time and life lost, but finally all is well.

White is a fluid, engaging writer and obviously a fast writer. The books are paperback originals, with Q&A and discussion questions for book groups included, but they are better than chick lit. White promises to be in the category best exemplified by a writer such as Lee Smith. She will be heard from often and will develop a wide and well-deserved readership.

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio on May 17, 2010.