Every once in a while, by the alchemy of art or by sheer good luck, a writer creates a character who becomes, in the minds of thousands of readers, more than merely a figure in a book--becomes as unforgettably real as any flesh-and-blood person. Such a character is Kate Vaiden (her name rhymes with maiden), the protagonist and narrator of Reynolds Price’s sixth and finest novel.
Kate is fifty-seven--the year is 1984--as she sets out to tell her life story. The motive that gives urgency to the telling is laid bare in the novel’s first paragraph, though not until the closing pages is it fully understandable. Forty years before, a girl of seventeen, Kate left her baby boy, Lee, with her aunt and uncle and never came back. Now, prompted in part by a bout with cancer, Kate has learned where Lee is living; the book will be her “introduction” to her forty-year-old son.
The opening pages of Kate’s story skip quickly through her first eleven years--a happy childhood, ended when her father kills her mother and then himself. Price takes a considerable risk by starting with an event of such dramatic intensity; the danger is that the rest of the novel might be just a long anticlimax. It is not. Kate’s account leaves the reader emotionally wrung-out but deeply moved, having felt the weight of choices made and their irrevocable consequences.
Above all, it is Kate’s voice which sets this novel apart: fresh, pungent, down-to-earth or lyrical as the occasion demands. “Catholics,” she recalls, “were scarce as...
(The entire section is 632 words.)