Kirkus Star


Email this review


Three episodes, 1915-1919, in the life of teenager Ginerva Chalmers--each of them radiant with West's unforced charm and spare intensity, all of them shadowed by Ginerva's warm, edgy, sexually tinged relationship with her widower-uncle Zen. In the long opening story, narrator Ginerva is twelve, living in Valencia, Calif.--where her father Reno (a laid-back sort) manages a ranch and her mother Birdeen (fiercely hard-working, ambitious) picks tomatoes all day in the heat to help pay the bills. Ginerva is confused by her parents' itchy, combative relationship;she's disturbed by her father's flirtation with frilly Mrs. Marie Ashton; her mystery-shaded view of romance is always centered on her dear, dangerous, twice-married Uncle Zen, a local car-salesman who still worships a long-ago dead sweetheart (the four-year-old Ginerva was their go-between). And all of Ginerva's tensions come together on the night of the W.C.T.U. recitation contest--when her gifted mother, up against Mrs. Marie Ashton (among others), faints just before finishing, with Ginerva leaping up on stage to complete the poem and carry home the prize. Was Ginny just there to help her adored mother? Or was she selfishly ""hunting the limelight"" herself? West lets this question resonate, subtly linking it to all of the story's deeper concerns--ambition, possessiveness, and sexual jealousy. Likewise, the other two, shorter stories also feature simple, almost-folksy vignettes with rich webs of motive beneath their surfaces. In 1917, 14-year-old Ginny, starting to be courted by boys as well as the ubiquitous Zen (who teaches her to drive), enters a Charlie Chaplin-imitation contest--learning, for the first time, how to be a ""victim."" And the very brief, yet firmly memorable, finale is Ginerva's 16th birthday party: Uncle Zen plans to give her an automobile; but Uncle Zen's girlfriend plans to give the birthday-girl a bicycle--with the rivalry of the gift-giving taking on, without explicit comment, comic yet deep metaphorical power. Small-scale, haunting work from a vastly underrated American writer--whose homespun atmospheres and gentle humor often conceal a stark, poetic, Chekhovian wisdom.

Pub Date: Oct. 31st, 1984
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich