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Kaye Gibbons 1960–

American novelist.

The following entry provides an overview of Gibbons's career through 1995. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 50.

Gibbons is best known for her novels about self-reliant Southern women and the challenges they have faced in their lives. Her...

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Kaye Gibbons 1960–

American novelist.

The following entry provides an overview of Gibbons's career through 1995. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 50.

Gibbons is best known for her novels about self-reliant Southern women and the challenges they have faced in their lives. Her stories are set in the twentieth century and are told in the plain, direct regional language of her first-person narrators. Her main themes include the vicissitudes of love and marriage, sickness and death, racism, poverty, and child abuse, and her characters are guided by an innate common sense and a steely determination not to give in to self-pity.

Biographical Information

Born in Nash County, North Carolina, Gibbons attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 1987, while still a student, Gibbons published her first novel, Ellen Foster. She lives with her husband and family in North Carolina.

Major Works

All of Gibbons's novels focus on the lives of strong Southern women who face adversity and inspire those around them. In Ellen Foster, the title character runs away from her abusive father. Determined to make a better life for herself, she seeks help from a black couple and their daughter Starletta, with whom she becomes friends. In A Virtuous Woman (1989) Ruby Stokes is dying of cancer; much of the novel describes how she prepares her husband for a life without her. Traditional themes about the importance of love, caring, and selfless devotion are explored in this work. A Cure for Dreams (1991) presents Lottie O'Cadhain whose dream of finding love and leaving the hills of Kentucky is shattered by the reality of her marriage to a taciturn, compulsively industrious farmer. Lottie decides to devote all of her attention to raising their daughter Betty. Following a reckless affair with an unsavory character, Betty returns home and reassesses her dreams. The story of Charms for the Easy Life (1993) revolves around the colorful and flamboyant Charlie Kate Birch. Charlie Kate is a midwife and local sage whose self-assured approach to the everyday trials and tribulations of life is an inspiration to Margaret, her granddaughter and the narrator of the story.

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Gibbons's novels has been mostly favorable. Many critics applaud her realistic portrayal of contemporary Southern life and her use of dialogue, contending that it avoids the contrivances of Southern colloquialisms and skillfully arranges the cadence of words to give the characters' voices their Southern flavor. Some reviewers note that Gibbons's protagonists display—often in contrast to their stated beliefs—traditional social and moral values as they face the challenges of life. However, a few commentators fault the "indefatigable and infallible" perfection of her protagonists, suggesting that their pluck and perseverance sometimes border on caricature. Furthermore, some commentators question the effectiveness of Gibbons's narrative style, particularly the use of multiple narrators in A Virtuous Woman, which, they contend, creates confusion and damages the cohesiveness of the story. Many also note the predictability of some of Gibbons's plots and characters, but concede that her stories are engaging and realistically told, often revealing, as Ralph C. Wood observes, a "deep truth [which] is narrative and practical, not abstract and theoretical."

Principal Works

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Ellen Foster (novel) 1987
A Virtuous Woman (novel) 1989
A Cure for Dreams (novel) 1991
Charms for the Easy Life (novel) 1993
Sights Unseen (novel) 1995

Andrew Rosenheim (review date 25 November 1988)

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SOURCE: "Voices of the New South," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4469, November 25, 1988, p. 1306.

[Rosenheim is an American novelist and critic. In the following excerpt, he examines the "narrative tone" in Ellen Foster, contending that "the voice is distinctly Southern … [and focuses] our attention as much on the story as the voice telling it."]

In Kaye Gibbons's first novel, Ellen Foster, detachment is the keynote of an eerily removed narrative tone. The narrator is Ellen herself, recalling a personal history of repeated tragedy and abuse. When the heroine says at the beginning of the novel, "I had me a egg sandwich for breakfast", some readers may groan, anticipating the rural, folksy, semi-literate Southern dialect that has degenerated by now into self-caricature. Yet, unselfconscious, undramatic, never aggrandizing, the quietness of the girl's account subtly magnifies the awfulness of what has happened to her—her father, a brutal drunkard, drives her mother to suicide, and begins to make sexual advances towards his daughter; Ellen, returned by the courts from a short reprieve in the home of a kindly school-teacher to live with her grandmother, is put to work chopping cotton; the death of her father is followed rapidly by the grandmother's demise; and when her upbringing is taken over by yet more unkind relatives, she moves finally to take her fate into her own hands.

Through all this we slowly come to recognize the girl's remarkable, understated quality: her sheer spunkiness. Alone on Christmas Eve, she wraps presents for herself, and says simply: "When I found them the next day I was very surprised in the spirit of Christmas." The voice is as distinctively Southern as the unschooled monologues in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, yet it stops sufficiently short of self-caricature to focus our attention as much on the story as the voice telling it. For a first novelist, Gibbons seems remarkably free of the anxieties of influence; like other new Southern women writers (Ellen Gilchrist, Nancy Lemann), she has no difficulty telling a story in her own way.

Padgett Powell (review date 30 April 1989)

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SOURCE: "As Ruby Lay Dying," in The New York Times Book Review, April 30, 1989, pp. 12-13.

[Powell is an American novelist, short story writer, and critic. In the following positive review of A Virtuous Woman, he maintains that the novel has a "remarkable structure" that compensates for the lack of "verbal and dramatic fireworks."]

All the people in Kaye Gibbons's second novel, A Virtuous Woman, are, as they might put it, considerable banged up. Two women, vestiges of Southern belles, have had to marry tenant farmers, or worse. A son has seen his daddy smashed by a tractor. Another son has been (s)mothered into raping a woman and hanging a mule. A heavy black maid must wrap her knees with Ace bandages in order to stoop and bend. And the woman of virtue referred to in the title is the wife of a migrant farm laborer who, when he discovers that her wealthy (by his lights) father is not good for much dowry, parades a 16-year-old girl in front of her, wearing the wife's lingerie. He then runs out to a pool hall, gets knifed and dies.

This death allows the virtuous Ruby Pitt Woodrow, who most imprudently eloped with the scoundrel to begin with, to meet and marry a good man, Blinking Jack Ernest Stokes, a man who may also fairly be called sweet, and a man who may finally be called virtuous himself. Ruby lives a good life with Jack until she experiences the ultimate banging up—her death by lung cancer at age 45, which leaves Jack more than a little at loose ends. In fact, their life has been a travail of making ends meet, while not having children or money or much else except each other: a life measured in spoonfuls of cornmeal.

This compact, complex novel is a somewhat stripped-down descendant of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. There are, however, two large differences. First, the mythic is eschewed. No coffin will go down the river; rather, Jack will allow Ruby's hands to be unnaturally folded on her chest because, he is told, everyone goes that way. He fiddles with her hands only to conceal her nicotine-stained fingers, the mark of her death (a curious gesture, it seems, given the tobacco-is-king climate of North Carolina, where the novel is set). And, second, it is not a multitude but merely two narrators who address us, one of them Ruby as she actually does lie dying. Jack speaks to us after Ruby dies, Ruby as she prepares to.

There is considerable risk in separating these two voices by time and death, for the alternating monologues are sufficiently out of phase that their constructive union is the work of the reader (who, lazy or primed by another Faulkner display, The Wild Palms, may want to skip chapters). A static quality threatens, but it is one that seems right here, if not ingenious. Ruby has died (or is about to, in her chapters) of some seeming metastasis, and Jack is (about to be) suspended in a stasis of grief and just plain not knowing what to do.

As if to deepen this dare, Ms. Gibbons has Jack and Ruby speak in a kind of standard somewhat-low-white-South idiom that is not off the beam enough to be interesting in itself, that is rarely (to its benefit) "poetic" and that calls attention mostly to its own ordinariness. People speaking in this guise can be as busy as one-armed paper hangers, caught between a rock and a hard place and, inevitably, a day late and a dollar short. Jack and Ruby, moreover, refer to their own sayings and actions as singular when they are not—which gives the same kind of pain as putting up with people who think they are funny or witty, and are not. Jack invariably introduces himself as "Blinking Jack Ernest Stokes—stokes the fire, stokes the stove, stokes the fiery furnace of hell!" When Ruby's mule is hanged, Jack accepts as compensation, worked out in some calm talk in the culprit's father's den, $100, taking pleasure mostly in its being money that was earmarked for the mule hanger's mother's new dishwasher.

There is guile in this pedestrianness. In the absence of verbal or dramatic fireworks—one thinks of a Lillian Hellman play—structure stands in, that constructive interference kicks in, and the architecture of this novel is remarkable. There are balances and counterbalances, symmetries and their neat absence that shore up the book, creating a sturdier vessel than one might have anticipated. Consider the "class structure" alone: two tenant farmers "marry up" to landed women (and two women marry down); one woman is virtuous, one bad (the mother of the mule hanger, a monstrous harridan called Tiny Fran Hoover, who is of mythic proportion and who in another novel could rule the roost, if not the modern fictive world); Burr, husband to Fran (by dishonorable, necessary marriage), inherits her father's land, while Jack, refusing Ruby's father's land and expecting Hoover land, receives none.

There is also some "moral structure": Tiny Fran, after all the terrorizing she can manage, is bought off or out of her marriage, and Ruby, after genuinely living as well as she can, is taken prematurely out of her marriage by death.

And consider the results: Jack is alone, bereft, "witnessing a chunk of the universe" that has come loose and knowing that "he doesn't have what it takes to stick it back together." Burr, contented by the merciful "loss" of Fran, is in a position to help Jack, who has been something of a father to him.

In a final choral chapter, in which we briefly hear more voices and more echoes of this novel's traditions, Jack Stokes is shown—as Ruby says early on—with "something raw and right there on the surface with him." He is not stoking the fiery furnace of hell, he is just about in it. And this novel does him and the woman he lost—and the meek, plain people like them—full credit.

Deanna D'Errico (review date Summer 1989)

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SOURCE: "Two Timers," in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 4, No. 4, Summer, 1989, p. 7.

[In the following excerpt, D'Errico favorably assesses A Virtuous Woman, but faults Gibbons's use of multiple narrators in the final chapter as an instance of technique overpowering content.]

Her slim, elegant first novel, Ellen Foster, displayed Kaye Gibbons's formidable talent for rendering first-person internal monologue, shifting time frames, and "southern" dialect, breathing life into a character and a tale that are unforgettable. A Virtuous Woman, her second novel, has many of the same characteristics. The story is told through alternating internal monologues from the past and present by Blinking Jack Ernest Stokes ("stokes the fire, stokes the stove, stokes the fiery furnace of hell!") and his wife, Ruby Pitt Woodrow Stokes, who has died of lung cancer at the outset of the novel.

As in Ellen Foster, the first-person storytelling technique brings even dead characters strangely to life; their words, feelings, and deeds hover in the forefront of the reader's consciousness. Ruby is gone, but her presence pervades the pages, just as it pervades Jack's lone existence. It takes the complete novel for Jack to eat "to the bottom of the deep freeze" that Ruby thoughtfully stocked before dying. There is no plot per se; the story is an ode to Ruby, the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31:10-25: "A virtuous woman who can find? / For her price is far above rubies. / The heart of her husband trusteth in her, / And he shall have no lack of gain."

Finally, however, it is the story of how Jack, who has only contempt for the afterlife described in the Bible, gets on with life after Ruby.

I'm finally at the point, past the point, where I can say this and mean it and not have to worry over somebody saying to eat my hat. I'm sick of being myself, sick of myself, sick all the way around of looking around and not seeing a damn thing but the four walls and my old ugly self looking back out of dirty, smeared up mirrors. Ruby'd be ashamed. This place looks like the pigs slept in it, and I walk around all day looking like the witches rode me all night, raggedy, messy. I know it but I haven't been able to do anything about it. You just can't expect a man to take and do without a woman when he's done with one long as I did.

The story, which is a pleasure to read, evokes subtly and lovingly the bond that has united Jack and Ruby through life and beyond. I only wish the novel had ended with Jack lying on the sheets he has sprinkled with Ruby's "smelly-good powders," hoping poignantly that Ruby's ghost will be enticed into appearing. Instead, the final chapter shifts disconcertingly to the third person, punctuated with the first-person thoughts of not only Jack but also of characters whose heads we have hitherto not been inside. These outbursts seem as inappropriate as using a dash when a simple comma would do. Technique suddenly looms over the tale, and it is difficult to view the scene without fretting over the strings that are showing.

Marilyn Chandler (review date July 1989)

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SOURCE: A review of A Virtuous Woman, in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. VI, Nos. 10-11, July 1989, p. 21.

[Chandler is an Indian-born American educator, essayist, and critic. In the following review, she examines the themes of loyalty, self-sacrifice, compassion, and love in A Virtuous Woman.]

"Until death do us part" is a line couples tend to utter with increasing dubiousness, if not irony. Why people couple, why they stay coupled and what happens to them when death uncouples them, are disturbing questions in a culture committed to contradictory ideals of self-actualization and lasting relationship. In a time of chronic mass confusion about the business of love and marriage, Kaye Gibbons' short novel [A Virtuous Woman] about a dying woman and her husband's unhappy survival provides an unsentimental tribute to and reminder of the old virtues of loyalty, tolerance, compassion and forgiveness that are the real stuff of workable, if limited, partnerships.

The two narrators, Ruby and Jack Stokes, live in rural Georgia, where life is still very much about owning and working land, where marriage and family are largely matters of practical survival, and where people put up with one another with varying degrees of tolerance but little collective introspection. When Ruby's lung cancer is diagnosed and recognized as terminal, her husband's first response is denial: "Shoot woman!… Anybody mean as the old squaw'll outlive everybody." Her own course of action is to freeze meat and vegetables in plastic bags for his dinners in the winter when she will be gone. She cries, gets angry, and then comforts Jack in his bewilderment over her tears and anger.

These are people unused to reflecting on matters of life and death, and unused to the radical kinds of intimacy their situation enforces. Brought to terms with themselves and one another, they take on the issue of mortality with a simplicity of language and childlike emotional honesty touching and even gripping to readers who have learned to couch matters of the heart in highly psychologized language. Ruby is not unaware of her own needs as she faces her illness, but takes for granted the inevitable misunderstandings that make giving and receiving comfort an awkward business and the emotional disruptions of illness a source of mutual embarrassment. She remembers wistfully how she dealt with her husband's insensitivity to her shock:

I kept to myself the rest of the day, kept all my thoughts to myself. And I hate to say it, but sometimes I just wanted to yank him and say, "Didn't you know cheering me up would do more harm than good? What possessed you to do the wrong thing when I needed the right thing the most? I don't ask for much from you. Can't you see that anything less than not exactly right hurts worse than I already hurt? You've got to cure me or either love me so strongly that I feel some of this pain pass from me. Those are the only things you have any business doing right now."

Remembering this outburst, she harbors him no resentment, but instead realizes how futile it is to ask for certain unattainable kinds of comprehension. Ruby's resignation to her husband's emotional limitations is one of many adaptations that leave the reader slightly uncomfortable even though their practical value as survival strategies is evident.

Ruby and Jack are not an ideal couple. They don't understand one another very well. Their communications are rudimentary and their sensibilities different and largely unexamined. What makes them partners, and what carries them through the trial of mortal illness, is not a love based on ideals of self-fulfillment and mutual enhancement, but simple recognition of the ways in which they need one another. Battered by their respective histories of loss, deprivation, and mistreatment, they find and rescue one another from disillusionment and loneliness. Ruby and Jack's alliance provides a poignant example of what many "good" marriages turn out to be: sturdy but unfulfilling compromises reached through a tacit negotiation over the terms of each other's needs. It survives the painful alienations and bafflements of illness and loss, but is itself a state of chronic, if tolerable, alienation.

This novel is a re-examination of old-fashioned virtues, even, we may say, wifely virtues—a notion that would strike most readers as quaint if not repellent. Husband and wife acknowledge unabashedly the needs that drove them together and the marriage contract as one of mutual service. As Jack recalls, "All she said was she wanted somebody to take care of her, and if I promised to, she'd marry me. I said then, I say now, 'That's the best thing in the world for me, for the both of us, best thing for anybody to do for somebody'."

Even while this version of romance seems rather thin gruel, the explicitly unromantic quality of their love story illuminates something about love hard to keep sight of in a post-romantic culture: that one of the things love can be is sturdy and serviceable, that it grows in proportion to basic needs acknowledged and met, and that it may be about survival more than about satisfaction.

In alternating interior monologues, Jack and Ruby remember and reflect upon their past in the weeks of Ruby's dying. The power of Gibbons' art lies largely in the remarkable tension she sustains between the simple language and categories available to these characters and the depth and magnitude of the feelings and questions they manage to evoke.

In a manner reminiscent of some of Faulkner's rustic narrators, profound and complex thoughts are rendered in language and categories that seem incommensurate until the reader, growing accustomed to the idiom, recognizes in the earthy directness of these characters a quality of matter-of-fact acceptance that deepens the poignancy or horror of what is being told. They take the twists of fate with a curious innocence that reserves the impact of the irony entirely to the reader.

Thus Jack reflects in grateful bemusement on the circumstances that put Ruby on this path, but stops short of the thornier philosophical questions one might raise about them:

I think about it and think how it's odd how it all lined up for me, all that grief and misery lining up into something so good. There her husband was about dead, then dead, and there I was, ready, willing, more than willing to hop in his spot and have her for my own.

Characters like these, in a milieu where the luxuries of middle-class expectations and standards of behavior are either unfamiliar or unsustainable, and the language of feelings limited by customs of taciturnity and contempt for complaint, expose baldly and starkly what more sophisticated and articulate characters might more ambiguously convey about the troubling paradoxes on which many marriages are based. In the tension between the language and the experience evoked lies all the power of the unspoken—the great pressure of the unconscious behind ordinary action.

Ruby's illness, lung cancer caused by smoking, serves as a counterpoint to the love theme, giving the novel not just pathos, but an element of real tragedy. Her smoking, viewed in light of motive and consequence, assumes the dimensions of a tragic flaw. Her first husband, a brutal, abusive and exploitative man she ran off with in her restless youth, taught her to smoke. The addiction to cigarettes is his legacy of harm to her. When he dies a violent death, she knows she is well rid of him, but the smoking habit remains as a vestige of the larger addiction their relationship expressed. She chooses defiantly not to give it up, answering Jack's urging with, "I imagine I'll stop smoking about the time you stop drinking."

Ruby's stubbornness on this point suggests some disturbing insights into why women make self-destructive choices. Irrational wants compete with rational needs; the satisfactions of the unhealthy stimulant are a powerful antidote to the disappointments of life virtuously and healthily lived. The equation between health and virtue here is complex. Illness, addiction and death itself seem inextricably intertwined with disappointed romantic ideals and the tragic persistence of the needs that make those ideals so attractive.

Ruby's last gesture toward Jack, lying on her deathbed, is to ask mutely for a cigarette. Having thought at first that she was blowing him a kiss, he is particularly hurt to realize what it is she wants in her dying hour. Craving seems to be winning out over love. Ruby is locked away from him, unreachable in her deteriorating body. In some sense she has always been unreachable, separated from him by inarticulate wants that have no place in the economy of this partnership.

Kaye Gibbons' technique of interior monologue is utterly fitting to the subject. Terminal illness, the epitome of enforced solitude, appears to be simply an extension of a normal and chronic condition, from which each individual can reach out to another only in ways allowed by conventions of privacy, tact and familial roles to establish a relation that only rarely achieves the fine harmony of empathy. The strength of the love portrayed in this novel is precisely in its acceptance of limitation and compromise. Neither expects fully to understand the other. Each learns to live with the other in a quality of mutual respect that comes of recognizing the marriage contract for what it is.

The epigraph from Proverbs 31:10-25 points the way clearly to the central message of the novel: that duty assumed willingly and carried out faithfully is both a thing of beauty and a matter of sometimes questionable self-sacrifice. The good wife does her husband "good and not evil all the days of her life" and hence her "price" is "far above rubies." These ancient admonitions to the faithful performance of wifely tasks as a measure of a woman's virtue deepen both the irony and the poignancy of this story about private life in a secular age much less certain of its gender roles and moral categories. The question they, and the novel, raise about the role of self-sacrifice in women's lives has arisen in many forms among women struggling toward different and more constructive standards of self-assessment. The terms in which that question is recast here reveal the poignancy of that struggle: when the marriage contract broadens to include a woman's concerns for herself, couples face a series of ambiguous trade-offs as they seek a balance point between committed love and independence in a world where both of them are so often promised and not delivered.

Roz Kavaney (review date 15 September 1989)

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SOURCE: "Making Themselves Over," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4511, September 15, 1989, p. 998.

[In the following excerpt, Kavaney positively reviews A Virtuous Woman.]

Kaye Gibbons's second novel, A Virtuous Woman, has the simplicity of a good Country-and-Western song; where her first, Ellen Foster, had all the artifice in the world going for its portrait of a child whose naiveté masks a growing sense of the world's real complexity, here she shows us two adults for whom extremity has revealed the bare bones of life. Ruby, a name chosen because Solomon informs us that the price of the virtuous woman is above it, is in alternate chapters dying of lung cancer and going over her life; in the other chapters, after her death, Jack, her husband, is busy mourning her and a life which always turned in detail to disappointment, whatever the consolation she brought him overall.

The biblical echo of the title reaffirms the novel's sense of people living with traditional values. Jack bemoans the fact that he leaves behind him neither children nor land to affirm his continuance; and Ruby regrets that the disease given by her worthless first husband prevented the former, Jack's pride in the face of her inheritance the latter. The quiet dignity of utterance that they share is built on pride as well as love and sorrow.

In the process of getting to know these two, we learn tantalizing amounts about the lives that surround them; we see the fractious, spoiled Fran, whose family make Ruby their maid for the sheer pleasure of having a genteel white servant, and Burr, her husband, the old friend who takes until the penultimate paragraph of the novel to do the right thing that was in his power all along. We see Ruby learning from an unknown neighbour's gossip of the stabbing of her first husband and Jack spreading her perfume in the hope of raising her ghost. A Virtuous Woman dares to do the ordinary thing, to transfigure the commonplace into a plain language that speaks with as much complexity as the rococo might, but with more appropriateness.

Rhoda Koenig (review date 1 April 1991)

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SOURCE: "Southern Comfort," in New York Magazine, Vol. 24, No. 13, April 1, 1991, p. 63.

[In the following excerpt, Koenig enthusiastically reviews A Cure for Dreams. She notes, however, that Gibbons appears, occasionally, to confuse morality with self-righteousness.]

"When my mother was a young girl she spent the pinks of summer evenings sitting on the banks of the Brownies Creek, where it flows into the Cumberland River. She always sat with a ball of worsted in her lap, knitting and dreaming of love coming to her."

So begins Kaye Gibbons's third and, once again, absolutely darling novel. It's hard to praise a book like A Cure for Dreams without sounding nauseating, or giving the impression that it's all the horrible things implied by "perky," "plucky," and "dear." I suppose if there is a platonic perky, plucky, and dear, though—ones that have resisted the gunky accretions of self-dramatizing cuteness—it's here that they apply.

Betty Randolph's mother, Lottie O'Cadhain, is the dreamer whose story this is. She starts out dreaming, in 1917, not only of love but of escape from the hill country of Kentucky, where her Irish family hugs tribulation to its breast for an occupation. "My mother told me a million times that Ireland and the Irish people were special, and that the O'Cadhain family in particular was the most blessed of all because it had been imposed upon without cease since the dawn it sprung up in Galway. For centuries they had been in training to have nothing, so everything was more or less working perfectly according to God's plan."

Lottie does find a young man to carry her off—to North Carolina—but their union founders on a common misunderstanding. Charles sees in Lottie a fellow enthusiast for hard work, someone who will be happy breaking rocks by his side in the cotton field. Lottie has indeed worked hard, but, in a family of lazy, drunken men, out of necessity rather than virtue. She thinks she is marrying someone who will let her have a rest. When they realize their mistake, he damns her for a flibbertigibbet, and she dismisses him as grim and boring. They ignore each other as much as possible, and Lottie gives her love to her daughter, who alarms her as she grows up and becomes attracted to feckless types.

That's about all, but a lot goes on in this little mill town of neglected women and taciturn, sometimes brutal men: One chapter, in which Lottie helps a woman get away with murdering her husband, is a satisfying little tale of female conspiracy and revenge. The local slattern gets everyone's sympathy after her husband "just took his foot in his hand and left his wife six months along with twins, with already enough kids to bait a trotline." A man despairs of his business, and is found "straight upside down on his head with the river rocks on either side, like bookends." Gibbons's colorful, matter-of-fact style ("This uncle had purely by accident crawled in the fireplace as a baby, and thus nobody enjoyed looking at him") at times recalls that of Damon Runyon—who was, after all, a country boy.

One thing is a bit disturbing. While Gibbons's first book, Ellen Foster, was also a story of female solidarity and male wickedness, it was told by a mistreated child, who could not be expected to have a complex view of such matters. A Cure for Dreams, though, is narrated by a middle-aged woman who accepts her mother's version of events as Holy Writ. Yet if Charles had not been such a workhorse, his two dependents would have felt the full horror of the Depression. And after the initial disappointment, we never hear of his loneliness or unhappiness, or of Betty's resentment at her mother's inability to patch things up. Gibbons is a lovely writer, but the morality here skirts self-righteousness; she's too good to get stuck in the genre of feminist fairy tale.

Ralph C. Wood (essay date 23-30 September 1992)

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SOURCE: "Gumption and Grace in the Novels of Kaye Gibbons," in The Christian Century, Vol. 109, No. 27, September 23-30, 1992, pp. 842-46.

[In the following essay, Wood examines Gibbons's first three novels, contending that her writings are "spiritually bracing" because her "characters tell and listen to stories … to discern their tragic situation, [and] to adjust their dreams to their disappointments."]

Devotional reading can be injurious to the devotional life, C. S. Lewis once observed. He confessed that he was more deeply moved to prayer and piety by Athanasius's treatise on the incarnation than by books designed to inspire and uplift. Few things tempt me more to doubt than sentimental assurances of faith. God is never so unreal as when people speak complacently about his reality. To invigorate my own spiritual life, I turn not to books of contemporary spirituality but to works of contemporary fiction, like those of a young North Carolina writer named Kaye Gibbons.

Although only 32, Gibbons has published three remarkable short novels with Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill: Ellen Foster (1987), A Virtuous Woman (1989) and A Cure for Dreams (1991). These books are animated by an unsentimental, often tragic realism. Though not overtly religious—in fact, they sometimes seem anti-Christian—Gibbons's fiction is spiritually bracing. She is a humanist who asks hard-headed questions and who, at her best, offers tough-minded answers.

Gibbons makes no fetish of feminine consciousness. Her women narrators perceive, in their own special way, the world men and women share. Though some of Gibbons's males are indeed brutes, their condition stems more from irremediable evil than from remediable patriarchy. Sin is acculturated in men, Gibbons suggests, through a heedlessness to what William Blake called life's "minute particulars." In A Cure for Dreams, a character named Betty Randolph offers this wry explanation for a sheriff deputy's failure to solve a murder that she herself has deciphered:

He didn't know to examine cotton stockings for briar picks, and he didn't know how to see and judge clean and dirty plates, slivers of cut pie, wild stitches, and wailing. This had more to do with the fact that he was a full-time male than it did with the fact that he was a merely part-time deputy and neither bright nor curious. Details escaped him.

Gibbons is an old-fashioned liberal. All three of her works give voice to those who have been largely ignored or silenced by history, especially suffering women. Yet Gibbons does not condescend to her struggling characters. She does not make them victims who must rely on political nostrums to cure their plight. Her readers are not made to feel guilt and sorrow toward the rural poor who populate her fiction; we are brought, instead, to admire their pluck. Enjoying little while suffering and enduring much, they have acquired a secular version of the character and the hope that Paul describes in Romans 5. Gibbons's fiction reveals how ordinary people live, thanks both to gumption and grace, quite extraordinary lives.

In a famous passage in the Biographia Literaria, Coleridge speaks of Shakespeare and Milton as the ideal artistic types:

While the former darts himself forth, and passes into all the forms of human character and passion, the other attracts all forms to himself, into the unity of his own ideal. All things and modes of action shape themselves anew in the being of Milton; while Shakespeare becomes all things, yet forever remaining himself.

Gibbons is decidedly not a writer of the Miltonic sort. Unlike a James Joyce or a Virginia Woolf, she does not sift everything through the sieve of her own consciousness. She is Shakespearean and Protean in darting herself forth: passing into the minds and impersonating the characters and penetrating the motives of people quite unlike herself.

In Ellen Foster, Gibbons indwells the world of an abused 11-year-old who tells her own story in wonderfully direct, run-on sentences. The girl's syntax is collisional, not chiefly because she has failed to learn grammar but because her life has been a series of crashes: one dreadful thing abutting another. Ellen is a child seeking not so much to thrive as to survive. Her father was such a cruel monster that he drove his wife to suicide. Even worse, Ellen lay in bed with her mother as she died from an overdose. This girl is more than acquainted with grief and guilt: they are the bone and sinew of her being. Her task is to escape not only the brutality of her father but the equally oppressive gentility of her grandmother and aunt.

There is something ingrained in Ellen that will not be defeated by such circumstances. Her sense of honor is so outraged at what has been done to her and her mother that she determines to make her life an act of redemption. She wears her dead mother's clothes, even as she also "plays catalog" and fantasizes about the garments she sees there. She wraps presents for herself and then is "surprised" by them on Christmas morning. Food and clothes are Ellen's great obsession, partly because she has had so little of either, but also because she understands that we become what we eat and wear. Style and substance, manner and matter, are unavoidably linked.

This novel forces us to inquire about the nature of selfhood. Are our lives such acts of self-construction that we can imagine ourselves into and out of being? Do we go through a succession of personae as through sets of clothes and houses and meals, shedding selves (as John Updike contends) the way snakes shed skin? The blurbs on the dust jacket answer Yes. Gibbons herself seems at times to believe such a grim secular gospel, for she lets her naïve narrator speak as if she were, in fact, her own maker and redeemer.

Ellen declares, for example, that she must help herself because God will surely not. In one of her most arresting admissions, Ellen wonders whether "I am fine myself or if I have tricked myself into believing I am who I think I am. So many folks thinking and wanting you to be somebody else will confuse you if you are not very careful." Later and more alarmingly, Ellen declares, "Lord I could fall in love with my own self." She also reflects on the problem of self-deception: "You see if you tell yourself the same tale over and over again enough times then the tellings become separate stories and you will generally fool yourself into forgetting you only started with one solitary season out of your life." Most revealing of all is this admission:

I decided too that one of my mistakes had always been lack of planning. But not anymore. While they were away at the graveyard I decided that if I quit wasting time I could be as happy as anybody else in the future and right now with one year ending and a new one starting up I thought now was the time to get old Ellen squared away for a fresh start.

And that is what I did. That is why I think I am somebody now because I said by damn this is how it is going to be.

Such a William Ernest Henley vision of herself as captain of her own destiny and master of her own soul is Ellen's adolescent delusion. Gibbons hints that her protagonist is self-deceived when, in the very next phrase, the girl adds: "Before I knew it I had a new mama." The reader knows that Ellen has not willed her foster parents into existence, even if she does present herself to them as a waif whom they must not turn away. Ellen's doughty character is both aided and obstructed by circumstances that she does not control. Her life is only partially her own, and in the mysterious mix of seizing and receiving resides the novel's—indeed, life's—real interest. Gibbons is wrestling afresh with the ancient paradox of freedom and grace.

Not least of the gracious presences in Ellen's life is a black girl named Starletta. Ellen sneaks out of her father's house at night to spy on Starletta's family. She sees that, for all their clay-eating destitution and head-thumping discipline, they love each other. Though initially scandalized by the poverty and filth of the hovel where they live, Ellen is finally made ashamed for having thought herself better than Negroes. She discovers that the hard lot which she happened to inherit from her cruel father is the inevitable condition of rural blacks, and she repents of the pride that once made her refuse to drink from Starletta's glass:

[Starletta] is the same girl but I am old now I know it is not the germs you cannot see that slide off her lips and on to a glass then to your white lips that will hurt you or turn you colored. What you had better worry about though is people you know and trusted they would be like you because you were all made in the same batch. You need to look over your shoulder at the one who is in charge of holding you up and see if that is a knife he has in his hand. And it might not be a colored hand. But it is a knife.

The novel's real concern, however, is not race relations but the nature of Ellen's reconstruction: how is such a life restored, redeemed? Perhaps the main reason for not regarding Ellen as a self-made creature lies in her regard for the school psychologist. She dreads her weekly sessions with this arrogant shrink because he attempts to open a window onto her soul. He takes off his glasses and screws his face right up into hers and tells her to relax and to say what she feels. When he complains that Ellen is not sufficiently outgoing, she replies that she is not social because she doesn't want to be, but may change her stance once she straightens out her "business."

He was not pleased with my answer. Or at least that is what he said. But I think he liked it because it was not as friendly as it could be and that meant he had his job cut out for him.

If everybody was as friendly and sweet he would not have a job. You look at it that way upside down and the world will start to make good sense.

The novel's most telling moment comes when the counselor learns that Ellen has taken a new name: Foster, in honor of her foster family. Blind to Ellen's splendid innocence about words, the obtuse soul doctor wants to probe her deep psychic need to rename herself: "You see Ellen sometimes children such as yourself who have experienced such a high degree of trauma tend to have identity problems." Such jargon is directed at a girl who, in the face of dreadful evils, has forged a self so gracious that she wants to offer gratitude to the family that has welcomed her into its home. Ellen's final exchange with the pseudo-priest is at once immensely funny and acutely revealing—a satirical attack worthy of Flannery O'Connor or Walker Percy:

Lord I say to him. I hate to tell him he's wrong because you can tell it took him a long time to make up his ideas. And the worst part is I can see he believes them….

No Ellen. The problem is not in the name. The problem is WHY you feel you need another identity.

Not identity. Just a new name I want to write that big across the sky so he would understand and the picking into my head would stop.

You are the one who is mixed up about me I told him….

He will not be seeing me again. I might be confused sometimes in my head but it is not something you need to talk about. Before you can talk you have to line it all up in order and I had rather just let it swirl around until I am too tired to think.

You just let the motion in your head wear you out. Never think about it. You just make a bigger mess that way.

Ellen's confession could be viewed as a cowardly escape from painful but necessary self-knowledge. I read it, quite to the contrary, as a childlike discovery that introversion is a vortex, that it sucks us into an abyss, that we dwell in the dark caves of the inner self when we flee the daylight of the world and others and God. Ellen laments such gracelessness in her cousin Dora, whose complacency is rooted not in a selfishly interior life but rather in a vacuously exterior life. Christmas, Dora is assured, will bring all that she has asked for:

… I said to myself Dora let me tell you a thing or two. There is no Santa Claus. And you cannot always count on getting everything you want. You'll see. And when you wake up that day and Santa has not laid out everything you dreamed of or he might have missed your house completely then you have to be brave and if you come to me we can talk.

Rather like Mark Twain at the end of Huckleberry Finn, Gibbons doesn't know quite what to do with a character who, despite her youth, has developed such moral maturity. The novel's final paean to interracial amity, albeit noble in sentiment, is a sentimental answer to Ellen's real quandary—the problem, namely, of "what all could happen even when you least expect it." We are also left with the perplexing paradox that Ellen's new happiness may be less interesting than her old misery. The girl may have exchanged a life of terror for a life of tranquillity—and who would not?—that will never make for a narrative so riveting as Ellen Foster.

This paradox is fully acknowledged in A Virtuous Woman. It concerns two ordinary people who were failures in life until they found each other, embraced each other in sheer need, and married without regard for gossipy opinion. Ruby Woodrow was a run-away teenaged bride soon cast off by the beast she married. She was too proud to return home and too much like used property for other men to desire. Jack Stokes was a ne'er-do-well farmer noted mainly for a nervous tic so pronounced that it made him blink both eyes. He was a hard-working man who had never loved any woman except his mama, but who wanted not to spend his life alone. Like the interlocking halves of a perfect whole, Ruby and Jack are joined in a joyful marriage. But they do not live happily ever after.

The narrative is centered around two harsh realities: Ruby's death from cancer at age 45 and Jack's poignant inability to accept it. Rather than playing mawkishly upon the anguish of Ruby's dying or upon the pathos of Jack's descent into alcoholism, Gibbons announces both of these facts in the first chapter. She understands, with Aristotle, that the purpose of plot is not to make us ask what happens so much as to fathom why: to discern the moral and religious significance of events and lives. Gibbons's sympathetic power to inhabit personalities unlike her own enables us to hear and thus to understand the life stories of Ruby and Jack. In alternating first-person narratives, they cast backward to their respective childhoods, move forward to their unhappy experience as young adults, and then vividly recount their brief but happy years together.

In the glory of their love lies its undoing. Here is the heart of Gibbons's tragic vision: Jack and Ruby were so wondrously married that he cannot live without her once she is gone. Had there been a division between them, some dissatisfaction great or small, Jack could have let Ruby go. It was the miraculous perfection of their love that made life impossible apart from it. As the Greek tragedians knew, good is destroyed less by evil than by its own virtues. The mortal greatness of human life generates an immortal goodness that can find no final earthly home. Death, for the tragedian, is the great enemy.

Gibbons has little regard for Christians who deny this fierce fact. At her mother's funeral Ellen Foster is enraged at the minister for refusing to tell the truth about suicide: "The Bible comes flat out and says killing yourself is flinging God's gift back into his face and He will not forgive you for it ever! The preacher leaves that out and goes straight to the green valleys and the streets of silver and gold." When Aunt Nadine assures her own daughter that their husband and father is strumming on a harp with the angels in heaven, Ellen thinks: "Chicken-shit…. She might as well have said sugar Dora your daddy isn't dead. Why he's just up at the North Pole working away on scooters and train sets like a good elf should. Why he's Santa's favorite helper!"

Though the title of A Virtuous Woman is taken from the celebrated description of the ideal wife in Proverbs 31, there is nothing biblical about the novel's resolution. As Ruby is dying, she and Jack are hounded by a local evangelist named Cecil Spangler who tells them that they can assure their reunion in heaven if they will only come to the Ephesus Baptist Church and make a public profession of faith. Religion thus becomes a narcotic, a delusory exercise in self-interest. Jack rightly ridicules such a faith:

Listen and let me tell what else I think about it. Listen to how God up there is supposed to make everything and everybody and everything's due to turn out according to his will and all. And we get the wars and the people starving and people hurting people and animals … and I'm supposed to go down there to Ephesus on Sunday morning and say, "Thank you, Jesus, thank you for the sunshine and the food on my table and all the birds singing and the likes of Adolf Hitler…." No thank you! I'll have no part of it! Beats the hell out of me why somebody'd want to sit up somewhere and think up harm, start it to going, then say, "Oh, let me make it up to you. Here's this rainbow so you can remember how I can kill everything and everybody, but I swear I won't do it again." … I think about that and want to tell it to Cecil Spangler and every other gung-ho Christian that's been out here trying to save me, and then I'd say, "Think about that, O ye of all that faith!"

This is at once a fair and funny assault on traditional theodicy. One wishes that the novel's answer to the problem of evil were as profound as Jack's attack is amusing. Ruby's creed, perhaps like Gibbons's own, is this: "We'd just rather stay amazed at how it all happens, I mean this world bumping right along with no plan at all." Such a bemused sense of life's mystery proves terribly inadequate in the end when, unable to cope with Ruby's death, Jack sinks into embittered blasphemy and hallucinative drinking. His final promise of self-reform is quite unconvincing. Far better, in my view, for Gibbons to have ended the novel with tragic candor about the horrible way a godless world bumps "right along with no plan at all."

A Cure for Dreams is perhaps the most accomplished of Gibbons's three novels. Although its form is not entirely satisfying—one narrative voice reports what another said to still another remembering yet a fourth—this novel possesses the tough-minded realism of the first two without the sentimentalism that mars their endings. A Cure for Dreams is the story of four generations of women who have heard each other's stories and thus learned each other's lessons. The truth they all understand is that life deals us a different hand than we had hoped, and that we must learn to live with diminished expectations and compromised dreams. Though hardly good news, this is livable wisdom and honest truth, to be cherished in an age of mass delusion.

Lottie O'Cadhain grew up Irish Catholic in Kentucky amid such economic poverty and parental harshness that, when she had a chance to escape to North Carolina with a Quaker farmer, she leapt at it. She fled into marriage, hoping to find love and rest but getting neither from her work-obsessed husband, Charles Davies. Lottie wanted to live for the risk of adventure but found herself saddled to a man who lived for the certainty of work. She thus had to flee once again, this time into love for her baby, Betty: together they were able to withstand the husband-father whose "gristmill served as his church" and who "loved work and gain more than his family."

Like many a slighted wife, Lottie determined "to leave her husband without leaving him." Yet A Cure for Dreams is not a conventional account of a woman wronged by a man and thus to be pitied. Lottie Davies has the spunk and spark that characterizes all of Gibbons's protagonists: "So I decided to stay with Charles and see what would happen to me, and until I understood that I had a hand in making whatever happened happen, I was a very sad young girl." Lottie became happy, in her own modified way, by learning how to control her husband and to raise her daughter.

She raised Betty to believe that the Depression need not be depressing, that women ought to enjoy pleasures other than home and hearth (if only in betting on card games), and that life becomes lively in imagining and enacting it. Betty articulates this bright truth:

Although particular people in the community talked about my mother as being silly and viewed her high spirit in the same vein as telling jokes at a funeral, she was merely refusing to wallow in the spirit of the times. And this particular bunch who looked at my mother sidewise in her high colors were the same ones who lived to load up in an automobile and spend Saturdays at the pictures. My mother, however, was a walking, talking, free moving picture, and people looked and listened to see what she would wear and what she would say the same way they sat in the Centre Theatre and stared at the screen, waiting for the story to start.

Gibbons is no feminist Horatio Alger hymning the triumphs of women over assorted ills and evils. On the contrary, she again proves herself a tragedian in revealing that Lottie's wisdom derives largely from her suffering. Having been deprived of marital love—not knowing what she would do with a man who does more than show up for meals—Lottie could tell whether other wives are genuinely happy or sad. She could detect whether they were merely passing as loved or whether they were truly loved. And she could fathom why a woman named Sade Duplin finally killed her husband in an act of rage more against his personal neglect than against his sexual infidelity.

Lottie also knew how to deal with her husband's callousness. He was so absorbed in his work, even more than his money, that he became oblivious to all other concerns. When a young man was killed at his cotton gin, Charles showed no care or remorse. Lottie registered her rage by refusing to join her husband in eating the meal she had prepared for them. In an act of deep symbolic protest, she called in neighboring dogs to eat the food on her plate. Lottie would not partake of life's fundamental sustenance when an innocent youth had been killed at her own husband's business. Nor did she experience any grief at Charles's decision to drown himself after the Depression had robbed his work of its monetary worth:

He killed himself solely for himself, and it was, in his case, a more particularly selfish act than usual. He didn't die for fear of failure in our eyes. He was not at all of this mind. If he'd been able to work, work, work without cease as always, I'm sure he would've lived on and died in a field or at his mill, thinking he had lived a perfectly sane life.

Betty learned to live a truly sane life by discerning how her mother had trimmed her romantic aspirations to fit the harsh realities of everyday existence. Betty's moment of truth came after she made one vain venture into the so-called great world: she moved to Richmond and sought to create an adventurous new life for herself. Failing wretchedly at this, she returned to her eastern North Carolina home and married a dull but faithful soldier named Herman Randolph. The novel ends with the birth of their daughter, Marjorie, who, 45 years later, has remembered and reported the stories of her mother Betty and grandmother Lottie and great-grandmother Bridget.

These women are not bitter about settling for less than they had hoped for, yet neither are they unaware of the happiness they have missed. All live by the strong medicine everyone has finally to swallow: the cure for dreams. This sobering truth is not at all dispiriting. Such unblinkered honesty about the tears of things, such courageous refusal of self-pity, such winsome irony about the paradoxes of life—these qualities make Kaye Gibbons a writer who is not only literarily accomplished but also spiritually instructive.

When she was still a fledgling writer, sickness forced Flannery O'Connor to return home and to spend the last years of her life in Milledgeville, Georgia. There she discovered how, for both good and ill, rural people enter each other's lives so fully—through shared experiences and familial ties—that an artist dwelling in their midst cannot invent reality merely to suit her own sensibility. We learn this truth afresh in the work of Kaye Gibbons. Her country folk live without pretense, if only because their intimate relations make it hard to deceive each other. As Betty Davies observes: "It was very difficult for a young person to lie about his character on Milk Farm Road."

Gibbons's work shows what is wrong with the old canard that the cultured discuss ideas while rustics tell stories. Though meant to disparage the countrified, this saying unintentionally exalts them: narratives strike deeper than concepts because they reveal how character and motive prompt action; how, in fact, they prompt lives. Gibbons's characters tell and listen to stories, not in order to construct themselves out of airy nothing, but to discern their tragic situation, to adjust their dreams to their disappointments. Deep truth is narrative and practical, not abstract and theoretical. Gibbons understands that the world raises questions for which there is no worldly answer.

Stephen McCauley (review date 11 April 1993)

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SOURCE: "'He's Gone. Go Start the Coffee.,'" in The New York Times Book Review, April 11, 1993, pp. 9-10.

[McCauley is an American novelist, short story writer, and critic. In the following review, he applauds the strong female characters and lyrical prose in Charms for the Easy Life, but faults Gibbons for making the central character, Charlie Kate, less than believable because of her resilience and invulnerability.]

Kaye Gibbons made an auspicious literary debut in 1987 with the publication of Ellen Foster, a short, moving novel told in the voice of its feisty 11-year-old heroine. Old Ellen, as the character calls herself, had a childhood that would make Oliver Twist count his blessings. But it is her clear, honest voice, rather than any particular horror in her tale, that stays with you after you've finished the book. Among Ms. Gibbons's triumphs in the novel is her ability to disappear into her narrator so completely that the story seems to come straight from Ellen's mouth without authorial intervention.

On the heels of this critical and popular success, Ms. Gibbons produced two equally accomplished and thematically more complex novels, A Virtuous Woman and A Cure for Dreams. These books, like Ellen Foster, are narrated in voices marked by the stylistic idiosyncrasies of the spoken word. All three have the immediacy and intimacy of dramatic monologues addressed directly to the reader, and all have the generational sweep of oral histories. Indeed, with these rich and varied stories of the extraordinary lives of deceptively ordinary people, Ms. Gibbons seems to be compiling a history of certain parts of her native North Carolina.

Charms for the Easy Life, her most recent book, is an evocative and gracious novel. Like all of her fiction, it is about the lives of strong, indomitable women: specifically, Margaret, the novel's awkward and bookish narrator; her mother, Sophia; and Charlie Kate, her astonishing grandmother. These women, who live together for a good portion of the novel, are armed with fierce survival instincts and folk wisdom passed down from one generation to the next. They overcome the obstacles thrown in their paths (and there are more than a few) with the combined resources of their vastly underrated intelligence and the courage they seem to draw from one another.

The men in their lives are largely ineffectual. They can be relied upon only to disappoint, disappear and die. When Charlie Kate's husband leaves her ("the way sad men leave: he did not come home from work"), Charlie Kate smashes a few dinner plates and then never mentions him again. Sophia explains the fact that she didn't miss her father by saying: "I was busy. I was highly involved in the life of my second grade." When her own philandering husband dies suddenly in the middle of the night, Sophia tells Margaret: "He's gone. Go start the coffee." And Margaret's observations on her father's death are limited to: "I didn't think I'd have less of a life with him gone. I knew my mother and I would have more."

Margaret has the unaffected appeal of all of Ms. Gibbons's narrators, though her voice is less quirky than most. She begins her story on the day near the turn of the century when her grandmother met her grandfather on a barge crossing the Pasquotank River in Pasquotank County, N.C. The book ends nearly 50 years later with young Margaret about to embark, finally, on a life of her own. In between, there are two world wars, several marriages, countless births and suicides, and the advent of telephones and flush toilets. The novel is replete with period detail woven unobtrusively into the characters' lives: ration cards, painted-on stockings, the release of Gone With the Wind and the publication of Look Homeward, Angel. (Margaret, Sophia and Charlie Kate are voracious readers who argue about Emma Bovary's fate and fiercely defend Faulkner's literary reputation.)

Although the ending of the novel suggests that Charms for the Easy Life is primarily about Margaret's coming of age, her need to resolve the opposing pulls of her desire for independence and her fear of leaving behind the life she knows, it is Charlie Kate who dominates almost every page, as surely as she dominates her granddaughter's life. Charlie Kate is a mid-wife and a self-educated doctor and dentist, a healer who draws on science, folk medicine and common sense. She's an implacable force of nature, a pillar of intellect, with insight and powers of intuition so acute as to seem nearly supernatural. If she predicts a patient will die by dinner time, he'll definitely be gone before midnight; if she warns against thin ice, some unheeding individual is bound to fall through.

Ms. Gibbons takes care and delight in convincingly describing Charlie Kate's colorful treatments for everything from an infected boil to leprosy. She lets us in on her methods of promoting birth control and sexual hygiene, even her reasons for giving chloroform to her female dental patients only. ("She believed that although women, as a rule, could stand more pain and take more punishment than men, they should not have to.") Far from being a back-woods quack, Charlie Kate is a broad-minded thinker who encourages her daughter's enthusiasm for Oscar Wilde's poetry. And how can you not admire a character who has the audacity to find the Atlantic Ocean "not as big as I thought it would be"?

But for all of the energy and compassion that Charlie Kate lends to the novel—and despite Ms. Gibbons's obvious love for her—she is ultimately an unsatisfying central character. For Charlie Kate is so infallible, indefatigable, resolute and resilient that by the end of the book, she comes dangerously close to caricature. I longed to know what her vulnerabilities were, to see her make one error in judgment, one prediction that proved false, one incorrect diagnosis. As the story went on, the considerable pleasure of watching Charlie Kate face down her foes began to fade as the outcome of every encounter began to seem inevitable. There isn't quite enough evidence of the "complexities and inconsistencies" that Margaret marvels at.

Still, I found myself happily carried along by Ms. Gibbons's natural gift for telling stories and by her lyrical prose. In one evocative passage, a sickly woman lying in the breeze of a fan looks "buttered, glistening with sweat." Returning from a date on a winter night, Margaret's mother crawls in bed with her: "She turned on her side with her back to me. She was asleep before I could take all the pins out of her hair, warm now, melting in love."

There are many such moments of haunting and beautiful tenderness in Charms for the Easy Life. If it is not the strongest of Ms. Gibbons's novels, it is nonetheless a worthy addition to her impressive body of work.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 6, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 162


Bell, Pearl K. "Southern Discomfort." The New Republic 198, No. 9 (29 February 1988): 38-41.

Positive review of Ellen Foster which praises Gibbons's ear for regional dialogue and her ability to avoid "the condescending cuteness that afflicts so many stories about precocious children."

Hanson, Isie V. Review of Charms for the Easy Life, by Kaye Gibbons. Southern Living 28, No. 4 (April 1993): 112.

Brief, favorable review of Charms for the Easy Life.

Solomon, Charles. Review of A Cure for Dreams, by Kaye Gibbons. Los Angeles Times Book Review (16 August 1992): 9.

Brief review that praises Gibbons's depiction of small-town Southern life.

Summer, Bob. "Kaye Gibbons." Publishers Weekly 20, No. 6 (8 February 1993): 60-1.

Discusses Gibbons's literary style and the challenges she faced in writing Charms for the Easy Life.

Weiss, Amelia. "Medicine Woman." Time 141, No. 15 (12 April 1993): 77-8.

Praises Charms for the Easy Life for its strong representation of the modern Southern woman.

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