Ellen Foster | Stephen McCauley

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Ellen Foster.
This section contains 1,127 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Stephen McCauley

SOURCE: "'He's Gone. Go Start the Coffee.,'" in The New York Times Book Review, April 11, 1993, pp. 9-10.

McCauley is an American novelist, short story writer, and critic. In the following review, he applauds the strong female characters and lyrical prose in Charms for the Easy Life, but faults Gibbons for making the central character, Charlie Kate, less than believable because of her resilience and invulnerability.

Kaye Gibbons made an auspicious literary debut in 1987 with the publication of Ellen Foster, a short, moving novel told in the voice of its feisty 11-year-old heroine. Old Ellen, as the character calls herself, had a childhood that would make Oliver Twist count his blessings. But it is her clear, honest voice, rather than any particular horror in her tale, that stays with you after you've finished the book. Among Ms. Gibbons's triumphs in the novel is her ability to disappear into her narrator so completely that the story seems to come straight from Ellen's mouth without authorial intervention.

On the heels of this critical and popular success, Ms. Gibbons produced two equally accomplished and thematically more complex novels, A Virtuous Woman and A Cure for Dreams. These books, like Ellen Foster, are narrated in voices marked by the stylistic idiosyncrasies of the spoken word. All three have the immediacy and intimacy of dramatic monologues addressed directly to the reader, and all have the generational sweep of oral histories. Indeed, with these rich and varied stories of the extraordinary lives of deceptively ordinary people, Ms. Gibbons seems to be compiling a history of certain parts of her native North Carolina.

Charms for the Easy Life, her most recent book, is an evocative and gracious novel. Like all of her fiction, it is about the lives of strong, indomitable women: specifically, Margaret, the novel's awkward and bookish narrator; her mother, Sophia; and Charlie Kate, her astonishing grandmother. These women, who live together for a good portion of the novel, are armed with fierce survival instincts and folk wisdom passed down from one generation to the next. They overcome the obstacles thrown in their paths (and there are more than a few) with the combined resources of their vastly underrated intelligence and the courage they seem to draw from one another.

The men in their lives are largely ineffectual. They can be relied upon only to disappoint, disappear and die. When Charlie Kate's husband leaves her ("the way sad men leave: he did not come home from work"), Charlie Kate smashes a few dinner plates and then never mentions him again. Sophia explains the fact that she didn't miss her father by saying: "I was busy. I was highly involved in the life of my second grade." When her own philandering husband dies suddenly in the middle of the night, Sophia tells Margaret: "He's gone. Go start the coffee." And Margaret's observations on her father's death are limited to: "I didn't think I'd have less of a life with him gone. I knew my mother and I would have more."

Margaret has the unaffected appeal of all of Ms. Gibbons's narrators, though her voice is less quirky than most. She begins her story on the day near the turn of the century when her grandmother met her grandfather on a barge crossing the Pasquotank River in Pasquotank County, N.C. The book ends nearly 50 years later with young Margaret about to embark, finally, on a life of her own. In between, there are two world wars, several marriages, countless births and suicides, and the advent of telephones and flush toilets. The novel is replete with period detail woven unobtrusively into the characters' lives: ration cards, painted-on stockings, the release of Gone With the Wind and the publication of Look Homeward, Angel. (Margaret, Sophia and Charlie Kate are voracious readers who argue about Emma Bovary's fate and fiercely defend Faulkner's literary reputation.)

Although the ending of the novel suggests that Charms for the Easy Life is primarily about Margaret's coming of age, her need to resolve the opposing pulls of her desire for independence and her fear of leaving behind the life she knows, it is Charlie Kate who dominates almost every page, as surely as she dominates her granddaughter's life. Charlie Kate is a mid-wife and a self-educated doctor and dentist, a healer who draws on science, folk medicine and common sense. She's an implacable force of nature, a pillar of intellect, with insight and powers of intuition so acute as to seem nearly supernatural. If she predicts a patient will die by dinner time, he'll definitely be gone before midnight; if she warns against thin ice, some unheeding individual is bound to fall through.

Ms. Gibbons takes care and delight in convincingly describing Charlie Kate's colorful treatments for everything from an infected boil to leprosy. She lets us in on her methods of promoting birth control and sexual hygiene, even her reasons for giving chloroform to her female dental patients only. ("She believed that although women, as a rule, could stand more pain and take more punishment than men, they should not have to.") Far from being a back-woods quack, Charlie Kate is a broad-minded thinker who encourages her daughter's enthusiasm for Oscar Wilde's poetry. And how can you not admire a character who has the audacity to find the Atlantic Ocean "not as big as I thought it would be"?

But for all of the energy and compassion that Charlie Kate lends to the novel—and despite Ms. Gibbons's obvious love for her—she is ultimately an unsatisfying central character. For Charlie Kate is so infallible, indefatigable, resolute and resilient that by the end of the book, she comes dangerously close to caricature. I longed to know what her vulnerabilities were, to see her make one error in judgment, one prediction that proved false, one incorrect diagnosis. As the story went on, the considerable pleasure of watching Charlie Kate face down her foes began to fade as the outcome of every encounter began to seem inevitable. There isn't quite enough evidence of the "complexities and inconsistencies" that Margaret marvels at.

Still, I found myself happily carried along by Ms. Gibbons's natural gift for telling stories and by her lyrical prose. In one evocative passage, a sickly woman lying in the breeze of a fan looks "buttered, glistening with sweat." Returning from a date on a winter night, Margaret's mother crawls in bed with her: "She turned on her side with her back to me. She was asleep before I could take all the pins out of her hair, warm now, melting in love."

There are many such moments of haunting and beautiful tenderness in Charms for the Easy Life. If it is not the strongest of Ms. Gibbons's novels, it is nonetheless a worthy addition to her impressive body of work.

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This section contains 1,127 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Stephen McCauley
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