J. Elizabeth Harris, |
A Light in the Window
It's the early 1970s and Sarah Banks Keller has come home to Savannah, Ga., to visit her dying father. She left home threatening never to darken his door again and has built a successful writing career for herself in the four years she's been away in New York. But her return to the Deep South sparks a string of painful memories, and thus her story unfolds.
As well as a bigoted father, the family consists of two more sisters, Louisa (who is Rizzo to Sarah's Sandra Dee) and Anna, who is locked away in a sanatorium suffering from schizophrenia. Aunt Polly came to stay when their mother died and has been with them ever since. There's a despicable business partner who has an equally despicable son, Charles. Matthew, a military man all smart in his uniform and destined for Vietnam, provides the love interest. Warren, a Klan-hating, pot-smoking, political activist, gives us the view from the other side of the fence.
As the novel unfolds a number of big issues are raised. Anti-Semitism, racial prejudice, rape, abortion and attitudes towards mental illness are all covered ... with the kind of depth you would expect from a 60,000-word novella. Since Sarah's memories are from the '60s, all of this is set against the backdrop of Vietnam and the hippy movement.
The publicity blurb tells us that the author has a strong interest in feminist literature and is writing for and about women, so I was surprised that Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Janis Joplin didn't get mentioned with Dylan, Clapton and Cream. I was also slightly disappointed that when Sarah gets to NYU in 1968, her only contribution to the sexual or political revolution that's going on around her is to attend an anti-war rally, wear a hemp braid, have a quick fling with Warren and lie awake wondering if Matthew will come home in a bodybag.
This is a family saga with the theme of forgiveness at its heart, but by the end I didn't care if Sarah forgave or forgot, or just returned to New York to be a good wife to her perfect husband and a wonderful mother to the Vietnamese baby he wants to adopt. On the whole, I found Sarah to be the least engaging of the three sisters and the writing to be distractingly adverbial in tone and cliched in form -- he hugged her fiercely, she kissed him longingly and if the earth didn't exactly move, there was lightning -- and the see-saw flashback of the narrative made it hard for me to get too involved in the first place.
If you like light soapy novels where a good-natured and lightly sketched hero and a couple of lightly sketched sisters provide the main emotional sustenance for a heroine who is all-suffering rather than all-heroic, you'll enjoy this book.