Atlanta-based author Johnson (Pagan Babies, 1993; stories: I Am Dangerous, 1996) returns to familiar themes with a southern family brought together, transformed, and in part destroyed by AIDS.
Thom and his sister Abby haven’t spoken in four years, not since Thom exiled himself after a family incident at the time of their father’s death. Thirtysomething, he now lives in Atlanta, the family’s hometown. A successful realtor, Thom has recently lost his boyfriend to AIDS and is sustained by a wide circle of friends. It’s a bittersweet existence, brunch and Bloody Marys on the one hand, hospital visits and anti-viral cocktails on the other. Older sister Abby, meanwhile, is a schoolteacher who lives at home with Mom in Philadelphia. Single, getting a bit frumpy and more than a bit bitter, she spends too much of her time taking care of out-to-lunch Mom and is well on her way to redefining Catholic spinsterhood for the 21st century. When Thom gets in touch to tell her he’s HIV-positive, Abby takes charge. She flies to Atlanta with the intent of bringing Thom back and brokering a family reconciliation. But like a Henry James heroine on her first trip to Florence, Abby comes alive in Atlanta. After she reestablishes her intimacy with Thom, she finds herself a dark and sinister lover, a new wardrobe, a different hair-do, and several new friends. With Thom’s old and Abby’s new friends, they create a family of their own, and their collective tales, interrupted by gossip and drinks, laughter and occasional tears, sends the novel flying along. But the inevitable can’t be avoided, and, after putting it off for months, Mom comes to visit: a scary combination of southern politeness and northern frankness, she pulls the story together. Her presence sends it ricocheting between family memories and the troubled present. The odd reunion, however imperfect and inarticulate it may be, bathes the closing pages in love and sadness.
Witty, poignant, and true.