Thursday, July 7, 2011

A VIRTUOUS WOMAN by Kaye Gibbons

This short, bittersweet love story is a welcome change from the ponderous novels about impoverished and victimized women that I've been reading lately. Ruby, who took up smoking in defiance of her first husband, has died of lung cancer at 45, leaving behind her 65-year-old second husband Jack, a tenant farmer. Jack and Ruby alternate first-person narration of their marriage, and the final chapter is a third-person omniscient narrator, perhaps because Jack is too grief-stricken to continue. Apart from that, we get a taste for all of the memorable moments in their lives, a mixture of both blissful and tragic events, and of the people who made the most impact on their lives, both positive and negative. The most notable is Jack's best friend Burr, who marries Tiny Fran, pregnant by another man and not tiny at all, in return for land of his own. Tiny Fran is a bitter and unpleasant woman, whose coddled son Roland is even more malicious. Burr and his daughter June are constantly having to pick up the pieces of the physical and emotional wreckage that Roland and Tiny Fran have left in their wake, and Burr is ultimately Jack's savior in lifting him up out of bottomless grief. There is even a bit of humor when Jack hires a fat housekeeper with bad knees and no intention of actually doing any work. Mirroring a marriage that was cut short by illness, this enchanting book is not quite long enough.

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