The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster
by Kaye Gibbons
Published by Harcourt
218 pages, 2006
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
Revisiting beautifully mined and previously explored territory can be a dangerous game for an author. And the danger is at least twofold. On the one hand, the author herself can wonder if she'll be able to do justice to the world she has already created and shared. On the other, even if the author herself does not wonder, her fans and would-be critics might.
This is especially true for Kaye Gibbons and her Ellen Foster, an American classic from a writer who has given us half a dozen beautifully wrought novels in the two decades since. Gibbons was just 26 when she introduced us to Ellen for the first time in 1987. Ellen Foster was the North Carolina writer's debut novel and, in the time between, the book has been lauded beyond expectation. In the late 1990s, Ellen Foster was an Oprah's Book Club pick, which brought Ellen back to the hearts and minds of many readers. Ellen Foster won the Sue Kaufman Prize for first fiction from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. It received a Special Citation from the Ernest Hemingway Foundation and won the Louis D. Rubin Writing Award. It is taught in several high schools and universities alongside the likes of To Kill A Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. OK, you get it already: Ellen Foster is, in many ways, a tough act to follow.
Though 20 years have passed since the arrival of Gibbons' debut novel, in The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster only four years have gone by. Ellen has changed, but not beyond recognition. Ellen at 15 still has all the pluck and promise that readers of the earlier book will remember. In Ellen Foster, young Ellen was launched out of her aunt's house on Christmas Day, after the deaths of her abusive and alcoholic father and her certifiable mother. In many ways, Ellen Foster dealt -- and dealt charmingly -- with issues that no child should have to ponder.
Four years later, we find Ellen on her feet and in good form. She is safe and flourishing, living with a gentle foster mother who adores her. The book opens on a letter from Ellen to the president of Harvard University attempting to convince him that Harvard needs her as much as she needs the ivy league school.
The Harvard letter seems like typical Gibbons, a writer whose artistry is such that nothing is ever only what it seems. At first glance, the letter seems almost twee. A childish -- if charming -- letter from a 15-year-old from the "flat, blank section" of North Carolina, the letter gives us a portrait of Ellen and her state of mind. As well, it serves as a good working device for delivering as much of Ellen's background as we need to take up her tale once more:
Going on to the brief narration of my background section, I need to let you know not to read mine and think this girl's trying to create a mood of shock and sympathy to gain a free ride or discount. The summary is that my mother became too sad and died when I was nine, and ordinary life got and stayed unusual for the two years it took to track down the steady foster situation I still enjoy here.
And so on, filling in the pieces while explaining why Harvard and Ellen Foster would be a good fit. It will be chapters and chapters before the impact of the Harvard letter is felt and before the reader understands how important the letter -- perhaps first seen as a device -- is to the story line.
Though the narrator is 15, The Life All Around Me is a mature work. At times, the structure of the novel seems careless, or at least faint. Taken as a whole, however, Gibbons' careful hand is apparent. The novel has a breezy, easy, Southern afternoon kind of feel, yet the issues Gibbons deals with are real as is the deceptively simple structure. For all of that, much of the pleasure here is in sharing in Ellen's observations of her world:
In a universe they claim is unfolding just as it should, I believe you'll survive and be fine if you know better than to be ruthless and are ashamed to be greedy. You may not be capable of slowing down, but you can manage to look around and be grateful for the day on your rapid way through it.
The Life All Around Me is artful, well-conceived and beautifully executed. Gibbons meanders charmingly through Ellen's narrative, bringing many of the threads first explored in Ellen Foster to conclusion. | March 2006
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.