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Couldn't Live With Her, Can't Live Without Her : A VIRTUOUS WOMAN by Kaye Gibbons (Algonquin Books: $13.95; 158 pp.)

June 11, 1989|Susan Heeger | Heeger is a fiction writer and an associate editor at Los Angeles magazine

Blinking Jack Ernest Stokes has lost his beloved wife, and his story begins with a cry of helplessness: "She hasn't been dead four months and I've already eaten to the bottom of the deep freeze." A virtuous woman who understands the link between emotional need and hunger--not to mention her husband's domestic ineptitude--Ruby has spent her last cancer-ridden days feverishly cooking for him. The question that now haunts Jack's anguished solitude is whether he will make it on his own.

Told in alternating chapters by Jack and Ruby herself (during some vaguely defined present before her death), "A Virtuous Woman" explores the nature of love and dependence, the rewards of marriage and the differing needs of men and women. The narrative method is most successful early on, when the two voices are used to dramatize the alienating force of grief and its power to summon longstanding resentments between two people who love each other. Jack, for example, tells of his last visit to Ruby in the hospital, of bidding her good night and watching her bring her fingers to her lips, "like either she was blowing me a kiss or telling me to hush a little." Instead, he realizes bitterly, the gesture has nothing to do with him; she is asking for a cigarette. Ruby, for her part, is enraged by Jack's initial, breezy denial of her illness. ("Shoot, woman! . . . Anybody mean as the old squall'll outlive everybody.") Her anger--that when she needs him most, he is his usual, insensitive self--reminds her of witnessing her grandfather's conduct toward her dying grandmother: "He'd take her arm and pat and rub it back and forth, back and forth, and then she'd jerk it away like he'd burned her. Then he'd realize he was rubbing the place where she'd had so many shots. But he'd take that arm and do the same thing every single visit, same thing, not thinking."

Los Angeles Times Sunday July 2, 1989 Home Edition Book Review Page 9 Book Review Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Reviewer Susan Heeger was incorrectly identified as an associate editor at Los Angeles magazine (Book Review, June 11). She is an associate editor at Angeles magazine.

The remembered scenes--full of her grandfather's chitchat and her grandmother's fury ("Go straight to hell! Leave me alone!" she finally screams)--are the most powerful in the book. They leave one wishing that Gibbons had continued to use the dual narrative to illuminate both the dark corners and the sweet comforts of a long marriage, even at the risk of showing her characters' flaws, their periodic selfishness and small-mindedness.

Instead, as the book progresses, she changes course and attempts to portray a perfect marriage. Her characters soon lose all credibility in their nonstop goodness toward each other; their voices run together into an aimless monologue full of homilies about the simple life and the value of seeing the best in everything, including the inevitable, trashy people of this world. Too often, lacking a conflict of its own, the story wanders off to peek in at the neighbors; pages are spent on the meanness of peripheral folk, whose main raison d'etre is to show up Jack's and Ruby's saintliness and to raise the question of why bad things happen to good people.

By the end, the book rambles to a halt without much sense of accomplishment or development or change. "Folks in town think too much!" exclaims Jack at one point, suggesting an attempt to head off critics longing for some reflection--one of the purposes and luxuries of literature--instead of endless remembered facts and canned wisdom. (Example: "You can't change people and that's that and you have to just go on and do the best you can. . . .")

In contrast, "Ellen Foster," Gibbons' stunning first novel, which won the Sue Kaufman Prize of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, features a spunky 11-year-old hurtling roughshod through life learning lessons the hard way as she seeks a stable home. Though both novels portray simple people battling adversity, Ellen has a wry, idiosyncratic voice free of Jack's and Ruby's country-music-style cliches. Where Jack has seen it all and can't be surprised or altered by what he sees, Ellen is vitally alive to experience and her rewards are doubly satisfying for the considered and persistent nature of her quest.

What seems clear is that while the Stokeses never fully seized their creator's imagination, "Ellen Foster" took over and turned Gibbons inside-out with the inspired urge to give young Ellen substance and voice. Since such a gifted writer is bound to bring forth more wonderful books, it would be wise to start with her best one (now a Vintage Contemporaries paperback), skip "A Virtuous Woman" and wait for what comes next.

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