By Susan Rebecca White. Simon & Schuster, 345 pages.
“A Soft Place to Land”
By Susan Rebecca White. Simon & Schuster, 341 pages.
Author event: Susan Rebecca White will discuss her latest novel, “A Soft Place to Land,” at the Book Exchange, 2956 Canton Road, Marietta at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 22. She will be joined by New York Times best-selling author Joshilyn Jackson, whose new novel is “Backseat Saints.” Call 770-427-4848 to reserve a spot.
If there were a category of Southern fiction known as “kick-ass Atlanta comedies,” Susan Rebecca White’s first book, “Bound South,” would be a classic in the genre. Published last year, it’s a witty, deliciously observed tale about a buttoned-up, upper-middle-class Ansley Park family, the Parkers, who turn out to be something more fragile and scandalous than their prim exterior suggests. Privilege, as White shows, is only a pretty façade, with exacting standards and an unwritten rule book of manners, behind which sad and absurd life stories play out.
The novel opens with an instance of noblesse oblige as the Parker family matriarch, Nanny Rose, longtime Peachtree Battle resident, journeys to the funeral of her black housekeeper in south Atlanta. White injects a wallop of farce into the scene when the old lady, peeping into the casket of the loyal servant she thought she’d known for 33 years, discovers a secret so impossible and unnerving that she passes out cold.
Peeling away the social mask from the faces of Atlanta’s elite, White (top photo) reveals hidden wounds and moments of disgrace. But she doesn’t forget the humor that flows through these lives. Much of the story is told with a neighborly chattiness by White’s middle-aged heroine, Louise Parker, Nanny Rose’s daughter-in-law. Perpetually exasperated by her free-spirited teenage daughter, Louise still manages to bask in the comforts of being a successful lawyer’s wife, including shopping trips to Neiman’s and a silver Lexus for her birthday. But beneath her persistent smile — the controlled friendliness of many an Atlanta matron — she reveals the frightened child she once was, with a severely depressed mother and an adulterous father.
Unbeknownst to Louise for 30 years, her upstanding attorney husband, John Henry — is he bound to dress like a Republican all his life, his scornful daughter Caroline wonders — nurses a secret guilt over his brother’s suicide. While the social code keeps the Parker adults emotionally closeted, their children’s spirits are steam-rollered by Coventry, their elite Buckhead Christian preparatory school with an intolerant streak of evangelism running through it. Wild child Caroline commits a reckless act of public indecency on school premises that destroys her bright future as an aspiring actress with admission to Juilliard. The Parkers’ strait-laced younger child Charles, who turns out not to be so straight after all, similarly suffers for his sexuality among his conservative peers.
White gives depth to her story of the privileged Parkers by weaving into their lives a different breed of Southerner: the family of their cleaning lady. Though white and Christian, they are blue-collar, rural and susceptible to televangelists and inane Christian soap operas. Gradually White teases out the tangled secrets that bind these two families more intimately than it would outwardly appear. In the cleaning lady’s adolescent daughter, Missy, an ardent churchgoer who longs to find her biological father, White locates a purity of heart unspoiled by social rules. Missy’s America is wracked by poverty, divorce and family instability, countered by the tyranny of fundamentalist religion. But the social mask, the well-told lie, is uncalled for here, allowing a girl to go after what she really wants and end up with a modern fairy-tale-like miracle.
White’s latest novel, “A Soft Place to Land,” opens in the same territory as “Bound South,” an Atlanta that is white, well-groomed, Christian and moneyed. But unlike “Bound South,” this is not another savory social comedy. Sisters Ruthie and Julia, students at Coventry (like the Parker children), are loving siblings whose lives are torn apart when their parents are killed in a plane crash over the Grand Canyon.
By the terms of the will, the sisters are separated. They are actually only half sisters, sharing the same mother. Ruthie, an earnest junior high student, is taken in by a wealthy aunt and uncle in San Francisco. Older sister Julia, a born rule-breaker like Caroline Parker, is dispatched to live with her biological father and wicked young stepmother in a redneck Virginia town. Drugs and church, she discover, are the only forms of entertainment there, and she prefers the former.
When the novel shifts to the West Coast with Ruthie, following her coming of age in a liberal, largely gay, multi-ethnic city, as far from Buckhead as Pluto, its emotional center dissipates. The devoted siblings, with thousands of miles and a world of cultural difference between them, grow apart. Their eventual estrangement over a betrayal doesn’t feel like the painful loss it’s meant to be, because Julia, despite her letters and a brief appearance in California, has been absent for so long.
And White, a sly satirist on her Southern home turf, is less sure-footed in San Francisco. Ruthie seems a perpetual tourist among the homosexual daddies and vegans, despite connecting with people she never would have befriended in Atlanta, such as the lapsed Jewish boy turned Catholic with whom she falls in love. Yet for all the broadening of her mind, her life remains relatively tame, inspired mainly by her uncle’s cooking. I couldn’t help but think White might have done better to follow the older sister into Virden, her father’s rural hometown, and from there into the fundamentalist rehab center where she is forcibly admitted for drug abuse. A brief chapter of a fictional memoir penned by the adult Julia, a writer, offers a rare glimpse of what her life was like in the punishing grip of fundamentalists. It’s hard not to imagine the fun we might have had watching White chronicle Julia’s struggles and blow the lid off that fire-and-brimstone mountain town.
Susan Rebecca White recently responded to my emailed questions about her work and her ties to Atlanta.
Parul Kapur Hinzen: Both your novels are very much about place. “Bound South” is set in Atlanta, and “A Soft Place to Land” begins in Atlanta and ends in Atlanta, with a shift in the middle to San Francisco. Why do you feel drawn to write about this city? What brought you back here after a number of years away?
Susan Rebecca White: I’ll start with the last question. I had a deep internal drive to return to Atlanta and buy an old house with my husband and live in it forever, just as my parents did 35 years ago when they bought their house in Buckhead. I didn’t even realize how deeply embedded this desire to move home and buy a house was until after my husband and I signed the deed and bought our one-way airplane tickets from San Francisco to Atlanta. I had very romantic ideas about home ownership (a romance that disintegrated once I actually owned a house!). But before, when it was all fantasy, I used to imagine my (imaginary) daughter catching fireflies in the back yard, helping me in the garden, taking bubble baths in the clawfoot tub and, of course, years later, coming down the front steps in her wedding dress. That kind of thing. The truth is though, as a writer, I have a sort of wandering soul. So I doubt that I will be in my same house 30 more years down the line.…
The desire to return home and plant roots is not exclusively Southern, but I think Southerners are particularly susceptible. Why is that? Why does the South pull back its expats, when so many of us felt such a strong urge to leave the South as soon as we possibly could? For me, returning had something to do with the seasons and a lot to do with food and family. When living in San Francisco, every spring I became almost inconsolably homesick. I yearned for dogwoods and azaleas and streets canopied by branches and leaves. Instead I got the rainy season. I would buy peonies and hydrangeas at the flower stand on Castro and Noe and cook something Southern for dinner that night. I cooked my way through [Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock’s] “The Gift of Southern Cooking” (just as Caroline Parker does in “Bound South”). I mail-ordered JT Pollard’s corn meal and Anson Mills grits. It was ridiculous — it wasn’t even as if I’d grown up eating that kind of “down home” cooking. My mom made a lot of dinners with boneless, skinless chicken breasts. But away from the South, I missed — and embraced — its indigenous food traditions. And I missed my parents, a lot.
And finally, I guess I’m drawn to write about Atlanta because I’m still trying to figure this city out. On a basic level, maybe I’m still trying to figure out whether or not I belong here. Plus, I just think Atlanta is really interesting: racially, politically, aesthetically. And it’s a loyal city: we love our Chik-fil-A sandwiches, Varsity chili dogs and hot Krispy Kremes. We feel loyal towards these things the way some people do towards their family crests.
Hinzen: Southern-style Christianity is a theme running through both “Bound South” and “A Soft Place to Land.” In your new book, your protagonists, two sisters in an upper-middle-class Buckhead family, experience religion in very different ways. The younger one, Ruthie, seems to take to heart the lessons in probity she learns at her elite Christian school. After their parents are killed, the bohemian older sister, Julia, moves in with family in rural Virginia and is sent to a harsh fundamentalist-style rehab program for substance abuse. What is it about religion that you’re interested in examining? How do you see class differences affecting religious experience in the South?
White: Oh, wow, I’m not sure if I know how to untangle all of my religious mishigas (to borrow a term from the Jewish tradition!). I was raised by agnostic parents but sent to an elite private school that was going through a particularly evangelical few years. Or, more accurately, there was a vocal minority of “Jesus, and only Jesus, saves” evangelicals at my school. We had assemblies where we were urgently urged to accept Jesus Christ as our savior. I wondered: Should I? But the earnest Christians at my school weren’t the people I found most interesting or even most kind. Meanwhile, at least 10 percent of the student body was Jewish. I can only imagine how alienating those assemblies must have felt to them, where they were basically told that their religion, their cultural tradition, their faith, was invalid. It was a pretty imperialistic model of Christianity.
But then there was the flip side. Some of the religious speakers who came to our school were fantastic — they offered an understanding of the world that wasn’t based on achievement and accumulation. One female minister came and spoke about how you could make all A’s and still fail at life, how it was your intentions, your heart and your kindness that mattered. As a struggling student, this was particularly meaningful to me. And we did volunteer work, which I found enriching in a way that the classroom was not, going to the Atlanta Mission Union where we would serve meals to the homeless, or helping build houses for Habitat [for Humanity]. So I guess you could say that from an early age, I had a push-pull relationship with Christianity. Or, if I’m being flip, an on-again, off-again relationship with Jesus.
Also, some of my half siblings were raised in the fundamentalist Pentecostal church. I visited their church when I was young and was fascinated by the congregants talking in tongues, although the preacher’s talk of a literal Hell scared me to death. And for whatever reason I decided that surely I was headed there. So that experience is also part of my DNA.
I have a genuine desire to attend to my spiritual life, to try to get outside of my own ego, my own insecurities, my own feelings of inferiority/superiority (flip sides of the same coin). Life is precious and life is not supposed to be safe, and there are times when I feel full of that knowledge. Usually those times are when I am in a dark and lonely place, when the cracks in my carefully tended façade open up and instead of dying of shame over not being “okay,” I get the sense that I am not alone, that we are all connected in our vulnerability, and that ultimately, things will be okay. And also, surely God and creativity are intrinsically linked, because when I am deeply immersed in a creative project, I feel satisfied in what I can only describe in spiritual terms.
Hinzen: In “A Soft Place to Land,” Ruthie, who is sent to live in San Francisco with an aunt and uncle after her parents’ deaths, is stunned by the alternative lifestyles she sees out there. This is a world she doesn’t know at all. Do you feel that San Francisco is a world apart culturally from Atlanta? What fascinates you about the West Coast as a counterpoint to the South?
White: I had a lot of fun writing about Ruthie’s initial reactions to San Francisco, which were a far, far exaggeration of my own when I first moved out there in my 20s. Ruthie was a totally sheltered kid before she moved to the Bay Area: she lived in Buckhead, went to a posh, private school filled with mostly white rich kids who all had heterosexual parents, most of whom were still married to each other. What was “normal” to Ruthie was a very elite, culturally conservative WASP tradition where traditional gender roles were universally upheld and no one wore white shoes after Labor Day. And then at 13 she lands in San Francisco, and man, are things different. Her uncle is Jewish, and a writer, which means he doesn’t go away to an office somewhere to work but stays at home. And he cooks! Before meeting her uncle, Ruthie didn’t know any man who cooked outside of flipping a burger or frying a balogna sandwich. And Ruthie’s aunt and uncle live near the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, which is basically the gay male capital of the universe, where Harvey Milk once reigned supreme. Suddenly the norm is to see male couples, holding hands, wearing tight jeans and T-shirts, not dressing “adult” in the way that Ruthie is accustomed to seeing adults dress. All of this is very, very shocking to Ruthie — but ultimately it opens her up, allows her to realize how many worlds there are, and allows her to more fully come into herself.
Hinzen: What are you working on now, and what’s your writing process like?
White: I’m one of those annoying writers who doesn’t like to talk about a project while I’m in the middle of it. (And man, do I wish I were in the middle! Full disclosure, I’m actually only at the beginning.) But it’s a novel, written in the first person (at least is it right now), and it takes place in New York in the 1950s but involves many Southern expats. And it contains lots and lots of descriptions of food.
Writing process: When I first begin writing a new book it’s torture: slow and awkward with many dead ends and false starts. During the beginning period I just have to give myself a task, say, to write 1,000 words a day or just to sit in front of my computer for two hours. Once the story starts to shape itself, things get really fun and I find myself pulled into the book the way you have to go into the bakery if you walk by and they are pulling cinnamon rolls out of the oven. At that point I’m addicted, and though it’s bad for my back because of the amount of hours I spend hunched over my computer, it’s awesome.