SOUTHERN-born author Ellen Gilchrist, whose story collection “Victory Over Japan” won her the 1984 National Book Award, has a fluent prose style that exudes a breezy self-confidence. In her numerous books -- novels as well as short-story collections -- this style is well-suited (sometimes too well-suited) to her content. At her best, Gilchrist can be comic, optimistic and life-affirming, whether about small matters or serious ones, but too often she can descend into glibness. Readers familiar with Gilchrist’s work may remember Nora Jane Harwood, nee Whittington, from previous collections, although sometimes it can be hard to tell one Gilchrist heroine from another, since almost all are smart, sexy, spirited and unbelievably gorgeous.
Nora Jane is no exception: “Nora Jane’s grandmother came from a line of women who had a habit of being strong ... they believed they were strong women with strong genes and acted accordingly.” There’s more than a trace of social Darwinism in this saga. In due course, Nora Jane’s strong genes and irresistible looks win her a rich, adoring husband: San Francisco bookseller Freddy Harwood.
“Nora Jane: A Life in Stories” brings together all of the Nora Jane stories from previous collections, taking us from her childhood in New Orleans to wife-and-motherhood in an era menaced by terrorism in “Gotterdammerung, in Which Nora Jane and Freddy Harwood Confront Evil in a World They Never Made.” However grim the circumstances, Gilchrist maintains her signature lighthearted tone. To conclude the volume, she adds a new novella, “Fault Lines,” in which the Harwoods, having serendipitously eluded fundamentalist ire, roll up their sleeves for a new challenge when Freddy is diagnosed with leukemia.
Here and throughout the book, Gilchrist is trying to engage with some of life’s big questions and she has some things of value to say. One important theme running through these stories is her decidedly different take on that timeworn antithesis between heart and head: The great divide between “those who think” and “those who feel” wittily encapsulated in Jean de la Bruyere’s epigram, sadly bemoaned in the novels of Theodore Dreiser.
But as Gilchrist repeatedly emphasizes, emotion and reason are not mutually exclusive. In Nora Jane, she depicts a woman who is rational but very susceptible to her own emotions. Young Nora Jane falls hard for Sandy, “a handsome boy with green eyes as opaque and unfathomable as a salt lake ... fresh out of a Texas reform school,” who wins her heart with poetry and plans to start a new life on the proceeds of a petty crime spree.
Not long thereafter, Nora Jane meets Harwood, who has all the makings of an ideal mate: He’s thoughtful, intelligent and extremely rich. Nora Jane enjoys his company enormously, and he’s head-over-heels in love with her. And yet, although she knows she’s not head-over-heels in love with him and she still has feelings for bad-boy Sandy, she has no trouble making the right choice. Subsequent stories introduce Freddy’s best friend, Nieman Gluuk, who falls in love with Stella Light, a brilliant biochemist: The calmly rational manner in which they embark on their relationship, beginning with HIV tests, is shown in no way to detract from the strength of their feelings.
Two other noteworthy themes also involve a desire to reconcile apparent opposites or reveal their underlying unity. Unlike some writers appalled by the dominance of science who’ve taken refuge in what they see as a pure and separate realm of art, Gilchrist summons up the spirit of Leonardo da Vinci in “You Must Change Your Life” to remind us that science and art are part of the same passionate desire to explore the universe.
She makes a similar case for the compatibility of science and religion -- the latter not in any orthodox or dogmatic sense (certainly not in the fanatical sense seen in the trio of fundamentalists who try to kill Freddy), but in the sense that the universe is a vastly complex place inspiring awe.
Gilchrist’s fiction has a certain charm, but the narcissism evident in her characters and the heavy-handed way in which she presents them, practically ordering us to admire them, undermines rather than enhances our regard for them.
Barraged by constant references to Nora Jane’s strength, beauty and superb genes, I was momentarily reminded of Gilchrist’s disappointing novel “Starcarbon” and its truckloads of beautiful, healthy, superior, virtually indistinguishable characters. “Nora Jane: A Life in Stories” is a much better book than that, but might have been an even better one had the heroine and her creator been capable of a little more self-awareness and self-criticism.
Merle Rubin is a contributing writer to Book Review.