With the first page of this stunning novel the reader enters the mind and life of the title character, who becomes as real as one’s closest friend. Reynolds Price’s achievement in creating a believable female narrator should not be too surprising for readers of his earlier work, who will remember, among other characters, the appealing Rosacoke Mustian of A Long and Happy Life (1962). His accomplishment here is even greater, for Kate is a richer, more mature, more introspective creation, a character who commands sympathy and respect.
Kate freely admits in her opening words that “the best thing about my life up to here is, nobody believes it.” Price’s plot is, indeed, melodramatic in the extreme. Before Kate reaches her eighteenth birthday, she has endured her father’s fatal shooting of her mother and himself, the suicides of both the men with whom she has been intimate, and the birth of an illegitimate child. The measure of Price’s skill is that he is able to use these sensational plot elements to bring his reader’s attentions to his real concerns—how human beings deal with their choices, what control they have over their own destinies, and how the ties of compassion and caring bind them together.
The novel begins in 1984, when Kate is fifty-seven. As the reader discovers late in the book, she is recovering from cancer surgery, and she has, after forty years, decided to try to find the son she had abandoned when he was only four months old. The story she tells in her unforgettable voice is for him, for Lee. It is her explanation and her justification of her life and the choices she has made; as she tells the story, she explores again its meaning and her responsibility for what has happened to her.
The setting of Kate’s account is territory familiar to readers of Price’s earlier work: rural North Carolina and the nearby Piedmont cities of Greensboro and Raleigh, with journeys as far as Norfolk, Virginia. The scenes of Price’s childhood in Macon, North Carolina, are Kate’s—“scraggly spirea bushes” in the yard of her home, rocky creek banks, overgrown country graveyards. She rarely ventures farther than two hundred miles from her family, but for forty years they manage to be as remote from one another as if they lived on different continents.
The narrative begins with a death and a trip to a funeral—events that recur with appalling frequency in Kate’s early life. It is the death of her mother’s first cousin Taswell Porter in a motorcycle accident that sets off the first and most catastrophic of the incidents that determine her future. Eleven-year-old Kate and her mother, Frances, leave her father fuming at home in Greensboro while they go to Frances’ childhood home in Macon for the burial. Although Kate does not discover the real reason for Dan’s anger until many years later, she senses the tension between her parents and particularly Dan’s resentment of Frances’ attachment to her family: Caroline Porter, the sister who has been a mother to her; Caroline’s husband, Holt; and their son Swift, only a few years younger than his aunt.
On the day after the funeral, Swift whisks Frances off, ostensibly to check the flowers on his brother’s grave. Dan arrives unexpectedly and follows them into the countryside. Hours later, Kate is summoned from the dark garden where she has been sitting alone beside the tiny “penny garden” her mother made for her under the roots of a tree. Caroline forces Swift to tell the child what her instincts have already revealed. Dan and Frances are dead.
In their end is the shape of Kate’s whole future. She first feels guilt, believing that her parents’ quarrel was somehow her fault. If she had accepted her father’s invitation to go with him to find Swift and Frances, she thinks, she might have saved them. Then she feels a deep sense of abandonment, an emotion that is to condition many of her later actions.
Price characterizes Kate as an inherently lovable person. She is, throughout most of the novel, surrounded by people who want to care for her. Caroline and Holt take her in as their daughter after the death of her parents, and their black servant, Noony, soon appoints herself Kate’s adviser on sexual matters. Fob Foster, a middle-aged cousin, teaches her to ride, buys her a horse, and later gives her five hundred dollars with the instruction, “Make something of yourself.” Kate returns their affection, yet she always withholds something. Angry with Caroline over an apparently trivial matter, she tells her on the fateful afternoon when Dan and Frances die, “I’ll never trust anybody else.” Indeed, she never seems absolutely secure again.
The nearest Kate comes to real happiness is in her inarticulate relationship with Gaston Stegall. They become lovers when she is almost thirteen and he only three years older. They meet as often as they can in a secluded mossy spot not far from the creek where her parents died, and there is in their uncomplicated loving more security and contentment than she is to find again. Yet latent in that happiness, as in her happy childhood with Dan and Frances, is death. When Gaston is graduated from high school, he joins the marines and writes Kate of his plans to come home. Then, inexplicably, near the end of a training exercise that requires him to crawl under machine-gun fire, he stands up and is killed instantly. His death increases Kate’s sense that she is a kind of Jonah, a bringer of disaster on those she...