A Geometry of Lilies

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The personal essay, in which someone ruminates on the overlooked peculiarities of everyday life, is usually only encountered in slight pieces in popular contemporary magazines and newspapers by Ellen Goodman and Erma Bombeck or in wry television commentaries by Charles Kuralt and Andy Rooney. It requires a unique personality— witty, homey, urbane, or clever—to interest readers in the ordinary doings of everyday people.

Steven Harvey has a knack for spotting what makes the ordinary extraordinary, if one only looks at it with a fresh eye; and he is certainly engaging and articulate in his description of such everyday things as wrestling with his kids on the living room rug, being fascinated with the budding breasts of a young girl when he was in the seventh grade, coping with the coming of age of his children, or developing a crush on a female student.

Nevertheless, in spite of his efforts to make these observations and ruminations about the middle-class family appear to be artless evocations of his own experiences as a son, a husband, and a father, there is something a bit too studied and self-conscious about them. It may be the result of an occupational hazard: Harvey is an English professor at a small Georgia college—a fact which the reader will guess very quickly by his frequent references to Wordsworth, Thoreau, Shakespeare, and Henry James. Moreover, there is not a little pedantry about many of the pieces; for, like many professors, Harvey cannot avoid a bit of lecturing and preaching. Although Thoreau, one of Harvey’s favorite predecessors, may have been able to carry off such philosophizing, in this, his first book, Harvey succeeds only fitfully.