A graduate of Duke University, Josephine Humphreys postponed writing until her mid-thirties in order to gain certainty regarding her subject matter. Clearly her patience has been rewarded. Her first novel, Dreams of Sleep (1984), won the 1985 Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award from PEN for a first work of fiction. Rich in Love, her second novel, is a highly accomplished, sensitive tale of a family’s breakup and the sexual initiation and emotional growth of the main character, Lucille “Lulu” Odom.
Set primarily in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, a small town adjacent to Charleston, where the author lives, Rich in Love bears some resemblance to Humphreys’ first novel. Besides the similar settings, both books focus on the theme of alienation within families and the principal characters’ yearning for love. Most notably, both involve the plight of a seventeen-year-old female who longs for family. So compelling was the character of Iris Moon, the babysitter in Dreams of Sleep, Humphreys has acknowledged, that she helped inspire the creation of Lucille, the complex, brilliant, and high-strung narrator of Rich in Love.
Lucille tells her story retrospectively, beginning with “the afternoon two years” before when her “life veered from its day-in day-out course and became for a short while the kind of life that can be told as a story—that is, one in which events appear to have meaning.” This retrospective gives Lucille the aesthetic distance to relate the highly disturbing events that marked the break up and restructuring of her family at a crucial turning point in her life, the eve of her high school graduation and the beginning of a period of sexual experimentation. The distance also helps her find apparent meaning in a world that she sees as essentially absurd, one where traditional values crumble before rapid change and the inauthentic replaces the genuine. Even the landscape reflects this conflict. “Builderamas” and shopping centers have spread out like malignant growth along the highway from Charleston, encircling the old town of Mount Pleasant and making obsolete the locally owned, older stores in town. Where once a swamp existed, a contractor has drained the land and constructed “Gator Pond Estates.” Within familial relationships as well, shifting values have caused disruption. Nearly all Lucille’s classmates have divorced parents. These families, like that of Lucille’s boyfriend, Wayne Frobiness, have split because of too many competing interests, too much materialism, and narcissism, the bane of wealthy middle-class people. As the practical, old-fashioned Lucille views them:These families let themselves in for it. All around me I saw the American family blowing apart, as described in Psychology Today. The American family needed to hold itself more closely. . . . The Frobinesses had been active in the community, members not only of the church, but also of a fitness center, a plastic surgeons’ supper club, a book club (Mrs. Frobiness), and a wind-surfing group (Dr. Frobiness). No family can stick together under the strain of so many outside interests. The human heart needs to be confined, not royally entertained, was my theory.
Yet Lucille’s view of her snug “hermit family” is shattered inexorably when she returns from school one early May afternoon to find her mother has abandoned her home and twenty-seven-year marriage, leaving all of her possessions and only a computer-written note to indicate her voluntary departure.
Such abrupt life transitions, most marking the end of love in one form or another, and the psychological struggle to adjust to them are the focus of the novel’s plot. Humphreys’ achievement in Rich in Love can, in fact, partially be measured by her skillful interweaving of many narrative elements—setting, plot, and characterization—into this one central conflict. As Lucille observes repeatedly, everywhere about the historical city of Charleston one sees “new places . . . slapped down over the old ones” with “some of the old . . . still showing through.” Details of the area’s early history and Indian settlers occur throughout the novel, giving it a richly detailed sense of place.
Each of the novel’s major characters undergoes some important life transition. Warren Odom, for most of his life a simple man of action who took everything at face value, must at sixty face the emotional pain of his wife’s unexpected decision to leave him. While she “slipped easily out of [their] marriage,” he “was catapulted into a whole new world, and lost in it.” At first his only defense is to contemplate a time “before her time,” restructuring his life by the poverty of his childhood and the “formative moment” when he pledged himself to making money. Later, he enters a new phase, the “age of wisdom,” fervently taking up books and ideas. His new “poetic” self also leads him into a new romance. Within six months, he has retired from his demolition company, dealt with the breakup of his marriage, and begun a relationship with his hair stylist. Rae, Lucille’s beautiful older sister, returns home from a successful career in Washington, D.C., married only two days but four months pregnant. She also must adjust to a new life, one as a responsible adult, wife, and mother. She must relinquish independence and freedom as well as an occasional job singing at a local black night spot. Lucille herself faces several crisis-provoking transitions. In her view, “everything that counted was falling apart.” She ignores her own despair over her mother’s abandoning the family and selflessly helps her father search for his wife. She takes on all the household duties of...