A Blessed Event
By Jean Reynolds Page
Ballantine, 326 pp., $22.95
Jean Reynolds Page can spin one heck of a tale. What's more, that her debut novel won me over is a testament to the power of her storytelling. In the interest of full disclosure, let me confess my East Coast prejudices. A couple of pages into Chapter 1, red flags went up: the small Texas town, the surrogate pregnant best friend in a coma, the oughttas, gonnas, gottas peppering the dialogue, the abusive father, a heroine named Darla. Well, I told myself, if incest and a cad called Billy Bob show up in the first 30 pages, I quit.
They didn't. I didn't. Still skeptical, however, I took up my pen. "Telegraphing here," I marked. "Predictable," I scribbled. Boy, was I wrong. Every time I thought I knew where the plot was going, Page shifted direction, offered surprises that made sense, gave another twist to a character I was sure I had nailed. Red flags changed to white. Mea culpa. I surrendered. I was hooked.
In Alliance, Texas, Joanne Timbro and Darla Stevens, growing up in backyards that abut, nurture a friendship both exceptional and enduring. Alternate chapters switch between past and present to dissect their bond. There are the usual teenage rites of passage -- bad boys, skipping school, a beloved dog, pregnancy scares, and parents who disappoint, and, in Jo's case, frighten. Not least, of course, is what no novel worth its adolescent salt dares to spare its reader -- the obligatory losing-one's-virginity scene. Still, despite such generic coming-of-age stuff, the friendship between the two girls never seems less than fresh or particularized. Darla says of Jo, "She told me once that her best times from first grade on had been with me." On the morning the two of them are baptized when they are 9, Darla sees Jo "smiling and crying all at once and I know that she's felt it too, flesh to light and back again. Twins, born on the same day."
But if they're twins, they're hardly mirror images. Jo's the one who, from the start, grabs all the attention. Feisty, daring, she's a drama queen to Darla's spear-carrier. As a homesick college freshman, Darla recognizes the transforming nature of Jo's very presence. "The campus filled in with color and dimension before my eyes. It startled me . . . how I saw it for the first time when she did. I wondered if some part of me was missing, unplugged. Some part that only worked when she was around."
Ten years later, character has become destiny. Darla marries Cal and settles down to a life of quiet domesticity. Jo is, well, Jo -- fighting with her father, sleeping with unsuitable men, living on the edge, all drugs, drink, and rock 'n' roll. What she can count on -- what rescues her from the brink every time -- is the gravitational pull of her love for Darla.
To prove this love, Jo offers Darla the baby that Darla yearns for and can't have. But on a July morning, Jo, four months pregnant, crashes her car into the bedroom wall of Darla and Cal's house. She ends up in a coma, on life support. Can she be kept alive until she delivers Darla's child?
Now Darla must step out of the understudy role. She must fight for her baby; she must battle Jo's meek mother and menacing father. She must try to discover why Jo was speeding along the highway that morning. She must retrace Jo's steps searching for clues to Jo's past. What secrets was Jo keeping from Darla? What were Cal's feelings toward Jo? Not to mention Sean, Darla's former lover and now a priest, who turns up to give spiritual counseling. And since it is in the nature of novels, if not life, that through such struggles come hard truths, Darla turns out to be no slouch in that particular learning department.
If all this comes close to melodrama, Page's talent for creating real feeling and complicated characters helps clear that hurdle. A dramatic courtroom custody procedure ratchets up the action another notch. The psychological acuity of these scenes adds an edge-of-your-seat suspense to keep those pages flipping. Of Darla's savvy lawyer, Sean the priest says, "She was doing her job. I pray and serve the downtrodden. She rips out people's entrails in public. We all have our gifts."
Page has plenty of gifts. Among them a great sense of detail and of place: the heat of a Texas summer, the claustrophobia and comfort of a small town, the cool blessing of a baptismal stream, the backyard pleasures of Cokes and bags of Cheetos, of tortillas and chicken with mole sauce that make Darla feel "the relief of belonging in the place where I actually was." For the most part, the writing is clear and no-nonsense, a welcome counterpoint to the story's sturm und drang. When, on occasion, sentences become strained -- "I had to go to my normal looking kitchen, a weak puppy hiding from thunder" or "He spoke in a monotone, like the operator's voice when you leave the phone off the hook" -- it seems as if a substitute (and lesser) writer is temporarily filling in. But these are rare lapses in a narrative that grows more and more compelling as Page unearths secrets, reveals character, and lays -- and layers -- the groundwork for an ending that is moving, believable, and earned.
Mameve Medwed's third novel, "The End of an Error," was published in June.