Kinflicks, Lisa Alther’s first published novel, is a funny, realistic account of a young woman growing up in the 1960’s and of her struggle to come to terms with her mother’s approaching death. Virginia (Ginny) Babcock’s story is told in chapters which alternate between her own narrative of her growing up and third-person narrations of the present (about 1974) in which she returns to her Tennessee home to be with her desperately ill mother. In both story lines, the emphasis is on Ginny’s attempts to define herself sexually and as a member of a family. Neither struggle concludes with any final definition.
Ginny rejects her parents when she is a teenager. She is repelled by her father’s rigidity and her mother’s fascination with death, and she is not close to either of her brothers. Her rebellion takes different forms, but once she is in high school her search for definition is largely in terms of her sexual behavior. Her mother tries to ignore Ginny’s activities, while the father is enraged by what he learns.
Ginny’s early efforts to find a sexual definition are based on her popularity in high school. She is the flag twirler with the marching band and the girlfriend of the school’s athletic hero. In a series of very funny scenes, they experiment with a variety of sexual activities, always stopping short of intercourse, but one side of Ginny’s nature rejects conventionality, and she loses her virginity with a half-crippled boy who is an outcast. None of this activity is very satisfying.
Ginny finds sexual fulfillment with a lesbian lover named Eddy, whom she encounters at the New England college to which she is sent by her father. When Eddy convinces Ginny that they are being socially irresponsible by remaining in school, they leave and join a small female commune in rural Vermont. When this episode ends in Eddy’s violent death, Ginny tries marriage to one of the townsmen, and has a daughter named Wendy. She loves her daughter, but in other ways she is unsatisfied.
Ginny’s husband eventually rejects her, and she returns to Tennessee to be with her dying mother. The two disagree about almost everything, including the events of their past, and Ginny is unable to provide much comfort for her mother. When the mother’s death leaves their family disagreements unresolved, Ginny tries several times to commit suicide. None of these attempts is successful, and in the end she decides to live, although she has already decided not to return to her husband and daughter. Her search for definition has not succeeded, but she will keep trying.
Ginny Babcock Bliss’s mother is dying of a blood-clotting disorder, and Ginny comes back to Hullsport, Tennessee, to stay with her. Ginny leaves her husband, Ira Bliss, behind in Vermont, with their two-year-old daughter, Wendy. In fact, Ira made Ginny leave their home after finding her with another man. Ginny thinks back on the steps of her life leading up to where she is at the time. Some of her memories are like the home movies, or “kinflicks.” She occasionally thinks about growing up with her two brothers, but she is more concerned with the past twelve years, from her first serious boyfriend through the few years of her marriage.
Her first boyfriend was Joe Bob Sparks, a football star with very little intelligence. Their times together were happier for him than for her; she dated him primarily because he was popular and dating was what everyone did. Ginny’s next boyfriend was Clem Cloyd, a motorcycle hoodlum whom she knew since childhood. Her parents strongly disapproved of her relationship with Clem and looked for a way to break them up. Again, Ginny was not in love with Clem; instead, he was someone with whom she experimented sexually and whom she used to rebel against her parents. Their relationship ended when Ginny was seriously injured in a fall from Clem’s motorcycle.
After the accident, Ginny’s parents decided to get her away from Hullsport by sending her to Worthley, a highly reputable women’s college in Boston. Ginny objected to this move, but she went anyway, probably because she had no compelling reason to stay in Tennessee and because protesting took too much energy. At Worthley, Ginny met Miss Helena Head, a philosophy professor who became her mentor. Under Miss Head’s tutelage, Ginny became increasingly interested in philosophy and cultural events. She threw herself into her studies and pondered the questions of the great philosophers. She abandoned her emotional life for a mental one, as Miss Head had done, and thought about everything with detachment.
Another woman who lived in Ginny’s dormitory challenged Ginny during this cerebral stage. Eddie Holzer, an earthy, rebellious student, began discussing with Ginny the ideas of philosophers, arguing that denying the world of emotion was just as limiting as denying the world of the mind. Their friendship became even stronger when another woman on their hall tried to commit suicide and Ginny did not know what to do. Eddie took control of the situation and comforted Ginny. Eventually, Ginny and Eddie fell in love. When Ginny told Miss Head about their affair, then tried again to approach the world philosophically, Ginny became so distraught that Eddie decided they should both leave Worthley.
The two women lived for a time in an apartment in Boston, using money Ginny received from a trust fund. The trust fund was a problem, however, because the factory that Ginny’s family owned made ammunition, and Eddie and Ginny opposed the Vietnam War. They finally calculated the proportion of the money earned from making defense materials and sent that amount to charity, living on the rest.
Eddie and Ginny later moved to Vermont and planned to live off the land. Eddie’s relaxed attitude was not conducive to farm work, so the two struggled until friends moved in and helped them. Unfortunately, the four women began to have trouble with local people who wanted to hunt on their property. When the women protested, the locals killed their cow. The women strung barbed wire to try to keep the hunters, who used snowmobiles, off their land. One night as the locals partied on the women’s lake, Eddie jumped on a snowmobile and drove toward them. She was decapitated when she ran into the barbed wire.
After grieving for a period of time, Ginny married a man from town, a man she knew before Eddie’s death. She said that she needed some order in her life. As was the case with her earlier relationships with men, her marriage to Ira was anything but blissful. He wanted a stereotypical wife and an extremely ordered life. Ginny lived as a rebel and a bohemian. The two had a daughter, Wendy, whom Ginny loved.
One day as Wendy napped indoors and Ginny sat by the pool, a bearded man came up. Ginny learned that he was called Hawk and that he was a U.S. Army deserter. Their friendship developed, and Hawk tried to teach Ginny about meditation. Their rituals became increasingly bizarre, and one night Ira came back from a meeting and caught them asleep together in what appeared to be a sexual position. He ran Ginny off, telling her never to return. Ginny’s memories of these events alternate with visits to her mother’s hospital bed, with trying unsuccessfully to save some baby birds, and with visits to Joe Bob Sparks and Clem Cloyd, both currently married. Mrs. Babcock, too, was exploring the past, especially her marriage to her late husband and the rearing of their children.
Two other patients at the hospital where Ginny’s mother is being treated, a nun and a Jewish immigrant from Europe, often discuss the meaning of suffering and the existence of God. Their arguments contribute to Ginny’s confusion.
Ginny gives her mother blood transfusions, but Ginny’s blood cannot save Mrs. Babcock. After her mother’s death, Ginny tries to commit suicide by tying a rock to her leg and jumping off a pier, but she lands on a boat. She finally decides not to kill herself. In the end, she leaves the cabin on her parents’ property, with no idea where she is going.