Valerie Sayers Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Valerie Sayers 1952–

American novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of Sayers's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 50.

Sayers is one of a generation of writers who ushered in a period of "new regionalism" in American literature. Focusing her work on a single geographic area—the fictional town of Due East, South Carolina—Sayers at once paid homage to southern American writers such as William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O'Connor, and advanced the genre by dealing with specifically contemporary issues, particularly loss of religious faith, mental illness, and the chasm between the genders. Critics have praised Sayers for her realistic and sympathetic portrayals of family life, her compact, resonant prose, and her scrupulous attention to detail.

Biographical Information

Sayers was born and raised in Beaufort, South Carolina, to a Roman Catholic family, a background that figures prominently in her fiction. At seventeen she left the South to attend Fordham University in New York City, earning her undergraduate degree in 1973. Following her graduation, Sayers returned to Beaufort to teach a writing course at the Technical University of the Low-Country. At that time she began to seriously entertain the idea of writing professionally. In 1974 she married Christian Jara, and the couple moved back to New York, where Sayers enrolled in the master of fine arts program at Columbia University. Her thesis was a collection of short stories. She took a teaching position at a branch of the City University of New York and began writing her first novel, which was never published. In 1983 she finished work on her second novel, which was published as Due East in 1987. Sayers followed the success of Due East with four more novels and much critical acclaim. In 1994 she was appointed Director of Creative Writing at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana.

Major Works

Mary Faith Rapple, the heroine of Due East, is fifteen, unmarried, and pregnant. An unusually bright and spirited young woman, she becomes a defiant loner in her small town, maintaining that her pregnancy is a virgin conception. The novel explores the tentative relationship between Mary Faith and her father, Jesse, in the trying months of her pregnancy—a relationship suffused with a shared but unspoken grief for Mary Faith's mother, who died of cancer three years earlier. Sayers's next novel, How I Got Him Back, picks up Mary Faith's story four years later and introduces other characters who recur in her subsequent works, including, Tim Rooney. In How I Got Him Back three women—Mary Faith, Marygail Dugan, and Becky Perdue—struggle to maintain relationships with the men in their lives in an atmosphere intolerant to spiritual peace and mental stability. In Who Do You Love Sayers tells the story of a single day in the Rooney family: November 21, 1963—the day before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Dolores Rooney is a New Yorker, transplanted through marriage to the town of Due East, who has never adjusted to life in the South. Dolores's infidelity, her husband Bill's impending bankruptcy, and their precocious eleven-year-old daughter Kate's sexual curiosity form the basis for most of the action in the novel. In The Distance Between Us Sayers for the first time moved away from the South and her recurring characters. Although Franny Starkey and Steward Morehouse grow up together in Due East, they go to New York, where the sexually promiscuous Franny meets Michael Burke, a militant Irish alcoholic and drug abuser, with whom she travels to Ireland. The three characters' lives are hopelessly entwined, with each trying to find salvation through his or her artistic ambitions. In Brain Fever Sayers returned to more familiar characters; this time Tim Rooney, now married to Mary Faith Rapple but in search of his first wife, Bernadette, in New York. On the brink of mental collapse, Tim meets several people on his journey who guide him through his search and his breakdown; ultimately, his religious faith is restored, although he does not recover completely from madness.

Critical Reception

Sayers has been roundly praised by critics, who find her probing of contemporary religious issues and the apparent chaos of modern daily life humourous, moving, and provoking. Her focus on the American South in particular has earned her much acclaim for its intimate portrait of the culture. While some critics have found her use of multiple narrators distracting, others agree that this technique allows the reader greater access to the thoughts and feelings of individual characters. Jonathan Yardley has written of Sayers: "She's smart and irreverent, but she's also kind and compassionate; she gives us imperfect people and makes us like and care about them, an essential task for any novelist but one accomplished by surprisingly few."