Sooner or later, every novelist seems to want to write a roman … clef a story in which actual people, places or events are depicted in fictional guise. John Grisham's has just been published under the title "A Painted House" (Doubleday, $27.95). It's a long, slow, comfortable novel that will pleasantly surprise those who think Grisham can write only about lawyers.
"A Painted House" bears a lot of resemblance to Grisham's childhood in Arkansas, a childhood whose tone and substance was set in poverty and the rural values of the early Eisenhower years, and whose moral authority was prescribed by the Southern Baptist Church.
As the novel opens, it's not good and evil in conflict, but weather and cotton. On the 80-acre hardscrabble farm where 7-year-old Luke Chandler, his parents and grandparents live, the cotton is high, it's picking time, and the rush is on to bring in the harvest before the rains come.
The Chandler family has hired two crews to help, one made up of migrant Mexicans and another composed of Arkansas "hill people." Despite the backbreaking work, each group has enough energy left to despise the other.
For Luke, who narrates the story, the days are also filled with hard work, but the evenings are ripe with fantasy as he sits on the front porch with his parents and grandparents and listens to Cardinals games on the radio.
The tranquility is broken, however, when a one-truck circus comes to town. It doesn't help that one of the hill people is a short-tempered bare-knuckle brawler who finds himself caught up in a brutal beating and murder, with Luke as a witness. Also in the offing are a brutal knife fight, the birth of a bastard child and weather that will threaten everything the Chandlers have worked so hard for. But the plot's action takes a back seat to Grisham's evocative picture of the time and place of his youth.
If there is one complaint to be made about "A Painted House," it is that young Luke displays prescience beyond his tender years but not, thankfully, to the point where it interferes with this nostalgic, old-fashioned and well-crafted story. Don Dale
In "Hold Me Close, Let Me Go" (Broadway Books, $23.95), Morgan, a 13-year-old girl, seems bent on putting her mother through hell. She lies about where she is going when she leaves the house. Even on school nights, she often doesn't return until late at night, or the next day. She smokes, drinks, takes drugs, has sex indiscriminately and gets pregnant by a boyfriend her mother doesn't like. She lies about the fact she is doing all these things until her mother confronts her with the truth and demands explanations.
The mother, Adair Lara, the first in her family to complete college, and an award-winning columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, feels completely helpless, ineffective and despairing. She repeatedly loses faith in herself, her daughter and her daughter's future over a four-year period in which everything she does seems only to make things worse. She blames herself for being too soft and wishy-washy; she blames herself for being harsh and unloving. She comes to dislike her daughter, and ultimately throws her out of the house.
This true story, told with humor, compassion and great honesty, is a must-read for all parents who have gone through their children's teen-age years and ever wondered if they did something wrong. It reads like a novel, and its story is riveting. The book is hard to put down. Lara, in the end, must confront not only her own imperfect parenting of her daughter but her own adolescence and unresolved relationships with her mother and father. She is also forced to weigh the impact her own divorce and remarriage has on Morgan. She learns many valuable lessons along the way, as will readers caught up in their own quandaries about how to deal with their teen-age children's insatiable drives for freedom.
The story is so well told, I think anyone who cares about family relationships would find this book a fascinating read. I don't want to give away the book's ending, but I will tell you that its message is uplifting: "Don't give up on your children, whatever they do: hang in there." Spencie Love
Those who are planning to publish their work on the Web should know that, for the first time, the Virginia Book Festival in Charlottesville has scheduled a special day for them, "The eBook: Publishing and Promoting Books Online." There will be four e-publishing seminars by some of the top professionals. Here is the program for this day, Saturday, March 24:
9 a.m. "E-Publishing Opportunities"
10:30 a.m. "Promoting Online: Learn Through Successful Case Histories"
Noon: Buffet luncheon sponsored by BN.com and Xlibris at which the first annual independent e-book awards will be presented.
2 p.m. "Brainstorming: eBook promotion ideas." Those attending should bring their own ebooks. Diane Zoi of Amazon.com and M.J. Rose eAuthor and journalist will discuss some of the audience's ebooks.
3 p.m. "Who's Reading What, On What, and What's Next?" A discussion of the most popular formats.
Cost $35, including luncheon. For information call (804) 924-4714
Style reviewer Mary Lloyd Parks has been rereading for the second time "Evening," by Susan Minot (Knopf, paper, $12). Parks tells us it's a wonderful book about a woman who is 65 and lying bedridden with cancer. She is going in and out of the present time and the past, reliving particularly an intense experience she had at about 25. Highly
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