Few authors have the good fortune to have a whole issue of a major, high-circulation magazine devoted to the publication of their first novel at about the time the hardcover edition is released. Such fortune was Price’s, however, when Harper’s published A Long and Happy Life in its April, 1962, issue. The book went on to win a William Faulkner Foundation Award for a first novel, and the critical reception of this first book was singularly favorable.
A Long and Happy Life presents Rosacoke Mustian to the reading public, as well as her erstwhile boyfriend, Wesley Beavers, who gets the innocent girl pregnant. Although he condescends to marry her, he then pretty much leaves her on her own. The book is alive with local color. In one of the early, most memorable scenes, Rosacoke needs to attend a funeral at a black church on a sizzling day in summer. Her friend Mildred Sutton has died in childbirth and is to be eulogized. Wesley Beavers drives his noisy motorcycle up to deliver Rosacoke to the funeral, but he does not go inside. Instead, he lingers outside and polishes his motorcycle, which is an extension of his being. Before the services are over, he leaves precipitously to get ready for the church picnic that he and Rosacoke are to attend that afternoon. As he screeches away from the church, he raises a trail of red dust behind him that one can almost taste, so vivid is Price’s description.
The book is divided into three long chapters, each with appropriate subdivisions. The action takes place between July and Christmas, and each section marks a visit from Wesley, who three times comes the 130 miles from the naval base in Norfolk to see Rosacoke, his girlfriend. They have known each other for six years. Rosacoke is now twenty, Wesley twenty-two. Wesley is sexually experienced; Rosacoke is not.
Price supplies necessary details...
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A Long and Happy Life, Reynolds Price’s debut novel, chronicles the struggles of a young woman to assume her place in the community as a wife and mother. Reviewers welcomed this novel about a believable, vulnerable young woman as a relief from contemporary fiction and its academic experiments in self-consciousness.
Unwed and surrounded by fecundity, Rosacoke Mustian feels marginalized from her rural Southern community. Abandoned by the young man she desires—Wesley Beavers—because she will not have sex with him, Rosacoke becomes desperate. Rather than suffer social ostracization, she decides to try to arrest Wesley’s flight from the community and to bind him to her by giving him what he wants. In doing so, she mediates the tension between the demands of the community and the desires of the self. Her plan backfires as Wesley acknowledges her gift to him by calling her by another woman’s name during the act. To him, Rosacoke is simply another woman with whom he is sexual. Rather than gratifying her, her plan hurts her.
As a result of their one act of lovemaking, Rosacoke becomes pregnant. Repenting her selfishness in having set out to trap Wesley into a marriage that he did not want, she decides to assume sole responsibility for her predicament. Wesley accepts his duty, however, and proposes to her, a proposal that she accepts as a duty to her unborn child. He rescues her from the plight of being an unwed mother and thereby...
(The entire section is 413 words.)