Tuesday's Book: Nora Jane and Company by Ellen Gilchrist

Over the past two decades, Ellen Gilchrist has almost single-handedly created a new, female narrative voice for the American South. She is a master of the short story, adept at eccentric characters and twisted family relationships among the white elite in the dying embers of the Eisenhower era. Among her charms is an ability to recycle her most memorable characters so they sashay from short stories into novels like long-lost cousins. Nora Jane is among them.

This daughter of an alcoholic mother from New Orleans first appeared in an earlier short story collection as a juvenile delinquent. On the lam from Louisiana, Nora Jane was driven to raise some cash by attempting to hold up Freddy Harwood's book shop near the Berkeley campus. Instead, Nora Jane and Freddy fell in love, she fell pregnant with twins by two different fathers and settled down to wedded bliss.

In the past, writing about the South, Gilchrist brilliantly skewered illusions about family warmth and fraternal solidarity. Her dialogue rang with voices coated in Bourbon, sugared with beignets and peppered with racial and social tensions. Sex was a raunchy undercurrent, with every tongue on a quiet Sunday afternoon whetted for scandal. But here in Nora Jane's West Coast paradise, the social milieu is so liberal and money so plentiful that the edges that gave rise to Gilchrist's wry observations vanish.

Unlike the eccentrics of New Orleans, Freddy (an heir to a department store fortune) and his friends are simply too contented with their lives. Gilchrist works hard to light a few fireworks in lotusland, with an Islamist group assassinating a feminist author who was a guest at Freddy's bookshop. But these stereotyped believers speak in cliches and disappear abruptly (and thankfully) from the plot after a new pages.

Meanwhile, Neiman, Freddy's best friend, quits his job as a film reviewers to return to university, where he meets biochemist, Stella. They get engaged, and Stella's cousins arrive for the wedding. Since the Williams cousins have lost their only daughter in the Oklahoma bombing, they adopt two girls from a Catholic orphanage. Even this potentially fascinating subplot, however, has a rather predictable happy ending.

There are flashes of Gilchrist's considerable talent and penetrating eye, but they are far too infrequent. Perhaps she should have paid closer attention to her character Adrien Searle when she tells Nora Jane that "`A psychiatrist ... said a great mother produces an irrational sense of security in a child. I'm irrationally secure. That's why I can do such an insecure thing for a living. Once I wrote three mediocre, almost bad, books in a row and still I kept on believing I was a good writer.'"

Nora Jane and Company, Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99

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