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LIVING TO TELL by Antonya Nelson

LIVING TO TELL

By Antonya Nelson

Pub Date: June 5th, 2000
ISBN: 0-684-83933-4
Publisher: Scribner

An Oprah-ready, dysfunctional family melodrama set in the contemporary Midwest.

Released from prison after serving five years for a drunk driving accident that resulted in the death of his grandmother, Winston Mabie returns to his childhood home where the rest of the Mabie family still lives: his father, a retired professor, his mother, and his two sisters—Emily, unhappily divorced with a four-year-old son and an infant daughter; and Mona, unhappily single, with an unfortunate habit of loving married men. But Winston’s return doesn’t move the story along, it doesn’t even thicken the melodrama, it just provides a place for the melodrama to pick up. Over the course of the following year, with time as the novel’s engine, a family friend dies from cancer, a family member is diagnosed with cancer, a family relative goes on birth control and still gets pregnant, and the family adjusts to Winston’s presence. Meanwhile, the plot stagnates. Present action is eclipsed by the past. For every incident and character, a history is provided, even the back-story of a Chihuahua—a story that happened before the story. The prose flows deftly in and out of each character’s consciousness, but the invention of their interior lives begins to feel contrived, labored, or just plain off. The chapter that introduces Winston, for example, a legendarily good-looking ladies’ man just released from five years of prison, fails to register any sense whatever of his libido.

The impact of family and place on the characters’ psyches is convincing. But the overall impact would be greater if the story had found its essential progression of incidents. Nelson (Nobody’s Girl, 1997, etc.), an accomplished stylist, gets at the heart of her people, while the narrative pace flutters barely above the flatline.