Published: May 1, 1994
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Source: Personal Copy
When a grandfather she never knew bequeaths her a house and 60 acres of land in Sweetwater, Tenn., a restless young artist leaves New York to recover her past and rethink her future. Cassie Simon's mother Ellen died when Cassie was only three; raised in Boston by her grieving father, she never knew her maternal relatives. Unprepared for the thick veil of mystery that surrounds them, Cassie is especially bewildered by her brusque grandmother, whom rumor credits with hiding a terrible secret about Ellen's death. In alternating sections told from their respective points of view, Cassie and her grandmother fight their separate battles to cope with the truth about the tragedy. Kline perfectly renders each woman's voice: Cassie's, probing and often uncertain, propels the narrative and creates an appropriate level of psychological suspense; the grandmother's quavers with the weight of memory as Cassie's search forces her beyond family myth to a painful and perhaps dangerous truth.
It is no secret that I, like so many others, loved Christina Baker Kline's Orphan Train, which was her most recent novel. Sweet Water was her first novel, and it shows how much she's grown as a writer.
That's a polite way of saying this book is downright painful.
First off, a warning...I will probably tiptoe into spoiler territory. I try to avoid that when I write reviews, but I'm kind of in the "why bother" mode in this one. So, if you still want to read this book at this point, you may want to tune out now.
I will say that Kline's writing talent is evident here. Her prose is readable and mature, but not heavy-handed. The problem with this book is not in the writing, it is in the construction. The plot is barely there and ill-defined. Is it about Cassie trying to "find what she's looking for" with her mother's family? Is it about Cassie's Grandmother's secret? Is it about Cassie's quest to find out what happened to her mother? The answer to all those is this: um, kinda, sorta? I don't think Kline ever had a clear idea of what this book was about and the reader certainly doesn't as they make their way through the story.
Then there are the stereotypes of southerners. Let's see...we have the catty frenemies, the holier than thou preacher's wife, the wild child (there are a couple of those), the old drunk, and the town gossip. All of these characters have shown up in any number of superficial Southern novels, movies, or TV shows. And, if that wasn't enough, there is probably one of the most offensive (and, really, inaccurate) Southern stereotypes out there. I'll give you a second....yep. We have a fair dose of explicit cousin on cousin action. Now, Kline does try to diffuse the situation by stating that they aren't "real cousins" because one of them is adopted. But, then she includes a few post-coital observations about how much the two look alike--very pointed observations (which are both yucky and annoying because she never closes that loop...).
Yes, I know...you need a shower now.
As I said, the one positive aspect was Kline's language. It was the one thing--well, that and the fact that I knew what she could do in Orphan Train that kept me going. However, I'm not going to let this book turn me off Kline's writing. As I said, this was her first novel and, when you compare it to her latest, you can see how much she has grown. If anything, it makes me more likely to read her next book. But, save yourself from the experience of this book and just take my word on it, okay?
I was not solicited for this review and I received no compensation for this post.