Mon January 20, 2014
Author: Elizabeth Spencer
Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation
Price: $24.95 (Cloth)
Born in July of 1921, Elizabeth Spencer is now publishing her seventeenth volume of fiction. Her first novel, the first of nine, was “Fire in the Morning,” 1948. Probably her best known work is the novella “The Light in the Piazza,” set in Rome and later made into both a successful movie in 1962 and later a Broadway musical in 2004. A volume of memoir, “Landscapes of the Heart,” was published in 1998. Ninety-two years old, a five-time winner of the O.Henry Award for short fiction, Spencer has never stopped writing and is at the top of her form.
This collection of nine stories is vintage Spencer. The reigning expert on Southern small towns and the families in them, she shows their warm connections and difficult tensions. Spencer certainly does not believe that all families are alike, even happy families. It’s more complicated than that. And family life is not static. From the first story to the last, Spencer depicts the ceremonies—marriage with its consequences and pleasures; divorce likewise. Changes inevitably occur which often necessitate starting over, sometimes enriched or enlightened, sometimes disillusioned. Family—nuclear and, more often, extended, is often painful but inescapable.
In “Return Trip,” the first story, Edward, an old friend, visits Patricia and Boyd at their summer cabin in the North Carolina mountains.
Patricia and Edward are cousins, of a sort: “Just as there were complicated ways Mississippians took of proving kin, so there were also similar ways of disproving it.” At Patricia and Boyd’s wedding party 18 years earlier, Edward had passed out next to a drunk, sleeping Patricia in the room Edward normally used. Nothing happened, but Patricia’s son, Mark, looks a lot like Edward. Surely it is the extended family gene pool that is to blame, but no one is absolutely certain.
The daughter-in-law/mother-in-law relationship, often a strained one, is conjoined with subtle class distinctions in “The Boy in the Tree.” After a sharp rebuke, Jenny feels that her mother-in-law sees her as “a lower class woman, common, practically a redneck.” That’s unforgivable. The breach is permanent. In “Sightings” the father-daughter relationship is at the center. After divorce, misunderstanding, and a long estrangement, the breach is repaired. The protagonist, Mason, was nearly blinded in an accident involving his daughter. By the end of the story he is starting to see.
In “Rising Tide” Willard leaves Margery, and she is relieved as much as anything. She is shed of Willard with his bigoted “small-town voice” and his gang: “all those types he had worked with, whom they had met at dinners, at cocktail parties, at the club, at the golf course. And their wives, too. The ones who worked were interesting but tired; the ones who didn’t work were silly … bankers, insurance men, presidents of this and that, doctors, all that bunch who ran things…now they were walking away with Willard. She wasn’t sorry.”
The difficulties of managing stepsons is the subject of “Blackie.” Emily is expected to care for her father-in-law Mr. Earl and her husband Lawrence’s three boys. Tough duty. Teenager Wilmer Lee, “full of lustful thoughts,” actually comes on to her. The household moves from stressful to violent when Emily’s son Tim moves in. Like primates in the trees, the boys torment and finally beat him and run him off. Now indeed they will all have to start over.
The closing story, “The Wedding Visitor,” also concerns a central family event. The narrator, Rob, who works as an aide to a congressman in Memphis, returns to the Mississippi family place and runs into a snarl of feelings and conflict.
The bride, Norma, has a little drinking problem and is asserting herself by refusing to wear a beautiful wedding dress her mother made. The groom, not quite socially appropriate, may have embezzled the money for his wedding suit. Uncle Mack is furious.
Rob gets involved and helps out. Back in Memphis “he tried (often unsuccessfully) to keep his congressman away from booze and women” so cleaning up other people’s messes was something he had, unfortunately, become accustomed to.
Spencer, whose spare fiction gives the reader a load of cultural insight in a short space, has Rob in conversation with another old “cousin,” a retired old maid schoolteacher, Marty, who is in straitened circumstances and more or less has to live with her kinfolk. Marty speaks of Norma: “‘That child is in her thirties. Don’t watch out, she’ll wind up an old maid like me. Nobody would want that.’”
Rob thinks, “Time to say something Southern-nice but he didn’t. ‘This is a nice room he said.’”
Marty continues: “‘I’d no place else to go. I had to accept.’”
Rob knows what he should say—“I’m sure they are glad to have you”—but he doesn’t, even though “You were supposed to compliment everybody.” He has been away from Mississippi for a while and no longer fits seamlessly into the cultural conversational flow. Marty reminds Rob, “Family is all we have, like them or not.”
Weddings often create a sense of erotic and romantic possibility, and Rob is half willing to be seduced by his cousin Emily but the reader can tell he does not want to be drawn back into the dense web of his extended Mississippi family. He reassures himself by repeating: “courting cousins wouldn’t work,” and for many reasons, the reader agrees.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”