Monday, November 22, 2010

Phillips, Gin (The Well and the Mine)

This is an admirable first novel. I'm sure all first novellists quail at that kind of sentence as it is patronizing and implies room for improvement. Well, that's partly true here. I don't wish to be patronizing, but I do think there is room for improvement.

The book centers on an event at a family's water well and how life unfolds for each member after this event. Phillips' character development is very good (apart from the mother, Leta, who I feel is never done justice, but more on that in a sec), and her plot moves along fairly briskly. What I thought didn't quite work was in the grand scheme of things-- by setting this novel in the cornpokes of Alabama in the 1920s, there is no way not to discuss racism. I get that. But, it felt very much like a rehashing of themes discussed by many, many others over many, many years... without any visible stylistic difference. I'm thinking of The Help, which I also just read. That was unique (and it wasn't just that it was written by a white woman).

I did like that she gave voice to each of the family members, which felt like a smooth way around some of the problems inherent in first person narrative. But the character of Leta bothered me greatly. She is portrayed as a saint with no rough edges or deep thoughts until about 3/4 of the way through when her childhood is described and she reveals the ideas and problems she keeps inside. That's way too late! She seemed absolutely unreal before this point.

I liked the mystery of the event at the well, but I thought its resolution was spoiled by the penultimate critical event of the book which in the end was absolutely nothing at all. And, lastly, the title? Who suggested that? It actually doesn't fit the theme and it doesn't fit the plot.

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