THE LIFE I REALLY LIVED by Jessamyn West
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THE LIFE I REALLY LIVED

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The unblinking autobiography of 75-ish novelist Orpha Chase -- who has written 18 heartwarming fictional ""landscapes of the heart,"" but now resolves to write the landscape, from 1900 Kentucky to 1945 California, the way it really was: rough, unfair, uninspirational. ""Barn-burning, dog-poisoning, incest, rape, suicide, murder: these events of my girlhood will be briefly told."" And so they are -- in a plain-pioneer, shut-up-and-listen litany (""Abel was a dog poisoner. It sometimes works out that way . . . Incest was common. It was a sexy neighborhood"") that is both sportive and riveting. As for backwoods-reared Orpha herself, she grows up idiotically ""happy as a lark,"" a bookish tomboy who nonetheless attracts men: ""Good in the sentence beats good in bed because there is more conversation than carnal congress in the average coupling of any duration . . ."" But innocent Orpha's men are losers: first husband Lon, a beautiful homosexual schoolmaster, shoots his young lover's father and himself to avoid scandal -- leaving utterly bewildered widow Orpha with a tainted name (she'll eventually be witch-hunted out of her schoolteacher job) and someone else's baby to raise; and second husband Jake, a merchant prince of shoes, maniacally tries to suppress all of Orpha's non-Jake attachments -- her cats, her books, and, above all, her own first attempts at writing. So Orpha takes baby Wanda and herself off to housekeep for brother Joe, a tubercular rowdy who went to California and got both a cure and religion. In fact, he's the biggest thing in revivalism (Quaker style) since Aimee S. McPherson -- and Orpha finds herself caught up in Joe's ugly trial for manslaughter via fake faith-healing. This ordeal will then become the basis for her first book . . . which will become a movie . . . which will star ambitious, manipulative Greg McGovern -- who'll make love to Orpha and then marry her nubile daughter . . . Some readers no doubt will get caught up in the obvious (but playful) parallels between Orpha and Jessamyn -- no harm in that. But even readers who've never heard of The Friendly Persuasion will find the spare, cutting drive of Orpha's no-fat narrative (""Papa's face said 'Love.' Mama's said 'Hurry'"") powerful enough to pull them through the occasional puddles of stiff-upper-lip sentimentality here. Only the fade-out ending (gentle idyll in Hawaii with a warm third husband) is an all-out let-down; otherwise, this is a zesty, just slightly tongue-in-cheek romp through pain, sorrow, and a little triumph -- with no time taken out for tears, introspection, or literary gussying-up.

Pub Date: Nov. 9th, 1979
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich