A disoriented surrogate mother goes on the lam in this uneven first novel.
Dusk in the West Texas desert; a stranger in trouble arrives at a desolate motel. The hotel owners are a harmless old couple; the stranger is, initially, a threat only to herself. Marlon and Char Garland have their hands full coping with their handsome, severely retarded son, 17-year-old Tim. Susannah Prue’s case is more complicated. The young Chicago woman, notably pregnant, her due date approaching, has been on the road for days. When the bookstore clerk agreed to act as a surrogate mother for the middle-aged Kit and Julian Forsythe, it was not just for the generous payments. Always the bit player in others’ lives, Susannah grabbed at the chance to be the star, realizing too late she was just “the hired gun.” What propelled her out of town were the confusing, inappropriate attentions of flaky Julian, and signs unrelated to her predicament. Now her magical thinking (an overused device) is pulling her toward the ocean, that old metaphor for limitless possibilities; she doesn’t give proximity to a hospital a thought. At the motel Susannah is joined by other guests: a woman called Dicey and her seven-year-old niece Frankie, a hermaphrodite being raised, over her protests, as a girl. The drama intensifies when Susannah hits the road again, “borrowing” Dicey’s car, and taking Tim and Frankie with her (they insisted). Shearn has a powerful empathy for the lost and the damaged, and she does well by this little family of misfits; she is less convincing with middle-class success stories (Kit, a snippy control freak, is a caricature), and the drama inherent in the Susannah/Julian/Kit triangle goes to waste. Her narrative skills are often ragged, with viewpoints sliding around like butter in a skillet, and the climax is botched.
Shearn only needs to add artistic discipline to her other gifts to be a formidable talent.