UP NORTH by Bettz Burr


Email this review


Like Burr's fiction debut, Blue Ladies (1980), this Manhattan comedy-drama features a divorced, 40-ish, ex-Southern belle who goes through a mild clutch of problems with money, motherhood, and romance. And, also like Blue Ladies, this second novel is often crisp and sprightly but suffers from diffuse focus, contrived happenings (in an otherwise inactive narrative), and a tone that drifts uncertainly--from soap to satire. The heroine is North Carolina-born painter/sculptor Nell Proctor, whom we follow, off and on, from December 1979 (the night of the annual North Carolina Society Dance at the Plaza) to December 1980. Nell has just finished an affair with lawyer Sam; she has moved out of the city to the Connecticut country, concentrating on a sculpture breakthrough; she's scrambling to pay the private-school bills for son Stevie that ex-husband john never manages to help out with. And her new romance for the year will be a rocky one with sardonic, eccentric bachelor-tycoon Bernard Rabb of Rabb Pharmaceuticals--a Carolina/N.Y. empire second only to the tobacco companies. But, apparently aware of the thinness of Nell's saga, Burr interleaves episodes from the lives of some other ex-Carolinians in Manhattan (all of whom attend that opening-chapter Society Dance). There's Bernard's sleek younger brother William, a sultan of conspicuous consumption along with tensely gorgeous wife Evie--until he's moderately brain-damaged in a country-backhoe accident, forcing Evie to take charge (becoming ""the quintessential southern woman. . . the matriarch of a madhouse""). There's William's mistress: beautiful young Harvard Business School grad Frances Bradford, who loses a leg in that backhoe accident and uses the situation to get herself a Vice-Presidency at Rabb Pharmaceuticals. Plus: an ailing Southern-liberal newsman desperate for TV work in N.Y.; a gutsy housewife (the Rabbs' houseguest) who sells ERA needlework kits to Bloomingdale's and Saks; and the Rabb boys' social-climbing mother, with her prestigious second husband (a Carter administration think-tanker). Unfortunately, however, the novel never really works as a portrait of the southerners-up-north subculture. Nor do any of the subplots, though sometimes amusingly detailed, appear with enough consistency to hold the attention. In fact, the material here might have been far better displayed in a book of related short stories--like Russell Banks' Trailerpark or Paul Theroux's The Consul's File. As it is, it's an intermittently diverting novel, strongest with the mother/son scenes and some of the social satire, but one that never settles down or generates much emotional momentum.

Pub Date: Feb. 8th, 1981
Publisher: Seaview--dist. by Harper & Row