A novelist and professor’s essay collection that almost coalesces into a memoir.
Zacharias (Creative Writing/Univ. of North Carolina, Greensboro; At Random, 2013, etc.) recounts how, after the publication of her first novel (Lessons, 1981), she spent 10 years writing her second, only to see it rejected, as was her third. “You write well, but you won’t sell,” editors and agents told her. “Today’s reader wants a high concept plot and an upbeat message. Your work is literary. It’s dark, but not Oprah dark. There’s no market.” Though the author didn’t exactly buy the explanation, she does write well, and she has since found a home in literary journals. The chronological continuity here and the thematic interweaving of family, place, art and mortality give this collection a cohesiveness that makes some of the lesser pieces—e.g., “Geography for Writers,” which mainly catalogs the spaces where various writers have written—seem intrusive. Yet the format also undermines the strength of some of the strongest pieces, such as the collection-closing “Buzzards,” in which her memories of her father’s life and suicide would have more climactic power if she hadn’t already shared these with readers in earlier essays. “A Grand Canyon” finds the writer working on many levels, as she fulfills her mother’s dream to travel there, a trip that reveals an emotional chasm between her teenage son and his grandmother and presages “the heartbreaking canyon that will open between us, because in that part of the story the generation gap isn’t between my mother and son but between my son and me. One day the love affair ends for the child, though it never does for the parent.” And then there’s the canyon itself, which the author illuminates as more than a metaphor.
Zacharias shows a keen eye for detail (she’s also a photographer), a strong sense of place, and an ambivalent, unsentimental examination of blood ties and family legacy.