The contrasting virtues of Mary McCarthy’s The Group and Eudora Welty’s elegiac family reunion novel Losing Battles are neatly conjoined in this entertaining 11th from the popular North Carolina author (The Christmas Letters, 1996, etc.).
A reunion brings together several former college roommates and friends, 35 years after the great adventure of their youth: a 1965 trip by raft down the Mississippi River (“Just like Huck and Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”), from Paducah, Kentucky, to New Orleans. Center stage are five of the girls: never-married schoolteacher (and former would-be writer) Harriet Holding, unhappily married Courtney Ralston, thrice-married beauty Catherine Hurt, successful romance novelist Anna “Todd,” and the group’s wealthy, impulsive golden girl, Margaret “Baby” Ballou—recently deceased, and seen only in the extended flashbacks that Smith skillfully interweaves with the present action. We eventually learn a great deal about each of these five, and the potential for sudsy cliché (Catherine’s discovery of a lump in her breast, “perfect” Courtney’s disastrous plunge into adultery) is deflected by vivid dialogue and what might be called rhetorical special effects, including several of Baby’s narcissistic yet pointedly self-critical poems (one contains the lines “but I’m such a bitch/deep inside/where I hide”) and hilarious parodies of the paperback-Gothic sensibility that suffuses both Anna’s fiction and her imagined romance with a handsome young steward on The Belle of Natchez (the steamboat on which “the last girls” are reliving their youth). Best of all is Smith’s sympathetic characterization of the central figure of Harriet: an intelligent, reserved woman who quietly accepts responsibility for having helped destroy her own happiness, and perhaps also the privileged, ill-fated Baby Ballou’s precipitous decline.
A bittersweet comedy with a fine sharp edge.