When she is introduced at the age of twenty, the title character of Roxanna Slade is already a person of insight and intelligence, but the nonagenarian who is telling this story is infinitely more. Roxanna has not only endured hardships; she has also used them to make the most of herself. At the end of the novel, she is so secure about who she is and how she fits into the universe that in order to right an old wrong, she is willing to embarrass her family and to incur the disapproval of her society.
Roxanna Slade is narrated in the first person by Roxanna herself. It consists of seven long chapters, organized chronologically. The actual time each chapter covers varies greatly. The first chapter takes place within a single day; others describe the action of years, sometimes summarize decades before stopping to dramatize a particularly important segment of Roxanna’s life. These variations in pace and in emphasis are not governed by what an outside observer might consider important. Instead, Price utilizes them to reveal what the elderly Roxanna can now see as the patterns that have dominated her life. These patterns are also the themes on which Price has built his novel.
One of the major themes of Roxanna Slade is the importance of love in human life. However, Price admits that love can bring one sorrow as well as joy. This is what Roxanna learns in the first chapter. On her twentieth birthday, Roxanna runs off with her Fern, or “Ferny,” and they drive up to spend the day at the Slade home on the Roanoke River with Major Slade, his second wife Olivia, their older son Palmer, and Ferny’s best friend, Larkin.
The visit begins like a romance. The minute that Roxanna and Larkin see each other, they fall in love. Indeed, their mutual attraction is so obvious that the Major jokes about it, implying they might as well marry, and the minute the two are alone, they do pledge eternal fidelity. Then, tragedy strikes. Ferny challenges Larkin and Palmer to a race across the river and back, and ignoring the Major’s warnings about the current, they set out. Then Larkin falters, and though the other two try to rescue him, he is drowned.
For both Roxanna and Ferny, this tragedy is a terrible initiation into what life can hold. However, the two of them react very differently. Believing that he caused the death of his best friend, Ferny retreats into self-destructive behavior and dies much too soon. Though Roxanna contemplates withdrawing from life, she rejects the notion. Within a few days after Larkin’s death, she is in bed with Palmer, and a year later, the two of them are married.
Roxanna’s relationship with Larkin was so brief that it could remain an idyllic memory. However, after she marries Palmer, she will experience more varieties of love than she knew existed. At the beginning, she sees in Olivia only possessive love for Palmer and hostility toward his wife. Having lost all of her other children, Olivia clings more strongly to her only living son. When Major Slade dies shortly before the wedding, Olivia has the excuse she needs to stake her claim. Since Palmer will now be managing the estate, she argues, he and Roxanna should live in the big house with her. Believing that Olivia is the chief threat to her marriage, Roxanna eventually forces Palmer to move to town, and even though it is Olivia who delivers her baby, Roxanna keeps little Larkin Augustus away from his grandmother as much as possible. It does not occur to Roxanna that her own love for Palmer and Augustus is just as possessive as Olivia’s.
However, Olivia has softened toward Roxanna. It is real affection that motivates her to have Fern tell his sister why Palmer is so inattentive and so frequently absent: He has a long- standing involvement with a black woman. When Roxanna confronts Palmer, he does not deny anything but instead insists that his other relationship has no bearing on his feeling for his wife and his son. The fact that Palmer is so unwilling to give up his mistress causes Roxanna to doubt the very basis of their marriage, for as she comments at the end of the book, even at the worst of times Palmer and she were the best of lovers.
Although Palmer does agree to stay away from his mistress, Roxanna can no longer feel the same about him as she did early in their marriage. The joy is gone, though gradually, as the years go by, it is replaced with a kind of contentment.
In the next segment of the novel, however, Roxanna learns how much more there is to love than either the raptures of youth or the satisfying routines of middle age. At forty, after...
(The entire section is 1898 words.)