The Great Gatsby is revived in an accomplished debut novel.
Winner of a Pushcart Prize and other awards for her short fiction, Watts (We Are Taking Only What We Need, 2011) spins a compelling tale of obsessive love and dashed dreams set in a struggling North Carolina town. The furniture industry that once served as the major employer has shifted its factories to Asia, leaving former workers feeling unmoored and depressed. Even those who have jobs—Sylvia, who works for a social service agency, and her daughter Ava, a college graduate who has risen to loan officer in a bank—see that they have fallen far short of achieving the American dream. Watts creates tender, sympathetic portraits of her two main characters, women enveloped in grief: Sylvia’s for her dead son, Ava’s over her inability to conceive the child she desperately wants. Among the town’s inhabitants, only JJ Ferguson seems to have succeeded: in the 15 years since he left Pinewood, he has become an enviably rich man. Suddenly, he has returned, and Sylvia wonders if he wants to show off, to prove that “someone like her, someone black, someone once poor, could come back to town and smash it underfoot.” But revenge is not why JJ is building a mansion on the hill overlooking the town; he has come back for Ava, whom he has loved since they were children. JJ desires Ava with as much passion as Jay Gatsby felt for Daisy Buchanan. If he won Ava’s heart, Sylvia realized, he “thought he could star in his own adventure, be the hero in his own story.” That desire infects all of Watts’ characters, who wish to star in their own stories, however modest. Sylvia simply wants to be a “known person,” to feel “that she had been important to someone.” That need compels her to form a relationship with a prisoner rejected by everyone else in his life. Ava’s overwhelming need is to be a mother.
Watts’ gently told story, like Fitzgerald’s, is only superficially about money but more acutely about the urgent, inexplicable needs that shape a life.