Rhoda Manning, cannot escape the conventions that entrap her: a strong-willed Southern “daddy,” a weak mother, and the racial and gender prejudices of her culture. Rhoda presents a frustrating, yet fascinating first-person narrative for a reader of the 1990’s: She has the intelligence and the will necessary to make a life for herself, yet Rhoda is unable to leave the prison of her father’s Alabama home.
The novel opens at the end of Rhoda’s freshman year at Vanderbilt with her poised on the brink of a collegiate swimming career and a promising future as a writer. When her family moves back to Dunleith, Alabama, however, her father forces Rhoda to transfer to the University of Alabama to protect her from what he perceives as the baneful influence of the liberal North.
At the University of Alabama Rhoda discovers sex in her sophomore year and mistakes it for love in the person of Malcolm Martin, a cold, selfish young man who never takes the time to know Rhoda or give her a chance to grow up. Of course this is the late 1950’s, when women had babies and men had careers. Although Rhoda finally leaves her husband after two babies, feeble adulteries, and an abortion paid for by her father, she can only return to her father’s house and the adoption papers that will make her boys his legal property.
Gilchrist never allows her reader to see Rhoda become the successful writer she tells us she is at age fifty-five nor achieve the autonomy she is subconsciously working toward in the course of the novel. Yet NET OF JEWELS deals squarely with the conflict any woman had to face in the years predating the Women’s movement of the 1960’s. Humorous at times, but mainly disturbingly sad, NET OF JEWELS creates a female world in which women matter very little, even to themselves.