WHEN I READ Sue Ellen Bridger's first novel, Home Before Dark , it never occurred to me to ask for whom the book had been written. It was obviously written for me. Well, O.K., for people like me who want above all a really good story with characters they can care deeply for.
Sometime later I learned from a list in the library that Home Before Dark had not been published for me. The list categorized it as one of those shadowy entities known as The Young Adult Novel. I say "shadowy" because no one has explained to my satisfaction who, in book terms, is a young adult, much less what cuased a book to carry the label. Something, I supposed - subject matter, style, an errant obscenity - may make a book not quite a children's book. But after that, why can't a novel just be a novel without tacked-on ages?
To be sure, All Together Now , Bridger's second novel, begins with a 12-year old. Casey Flanagan has come to spend the summer with her grandparents while her father flies in the Korean War and her mother works two jobs to stave off fear and loneliness. The book starts with Casey's last summer as a child, yet it is not about emerging adolescence, Rather, it is, as the title suggests, a story of the members of an extended family raching towards one another. It is a book about simple people learning how to love, and because love is a difficult task for the wisest of us, these simple people botch and bungle but never quite give up.
The book reminds me of a square dance with four couples: The various partners dance together and interact with the others in the square and then come home again. Jane and Ben Flanagan, Casey's paternal grandparents are the head couple. It is against the solid harmony of their relationship that the other three pairs counter and clash and finally resolve. Casey's partner is Dwayne Perkins, a man her father's age who has been suspended in childhood ever since a porch swing broke, driving him head first into a wall. Couple number three are Casey's Uncle Taylor, working in his father's lumberyard but living for Saturday and the stock-car races, and Gwen, scooping popcorn and candy-covered raisins at the dimestore and draping herself on a car hood to be watched at the races. Bridgers gently leads the reader from distaste to great concern for this five-and-dime romance between the peroxided clerk and the stock-car racer.
But the most fragile partnership, the one which makes the reader laugh and cry and wring her hands, is that of two friends of the Flanagan family. Bridger's ability to create characters is poignantly apparent in these two - the outwardly prim and meticulous Pansy, Jane's best friend from childhood, and the ex-travelling man and dancing waiter Hazard, who finally and disastrously dares to marry the doctor's aging daughter.
In order to propel the reader into the center of this complex square, Bridgers has made a risky technical decision. She tells the story from the point of view of all of these eight people, sometimes switching, point of view more than once on a single page. The reader is being asked to follow the intricate steps of the dance, and the may not always understand the calls. There is also, perhaps because of the frequent shifts in point of view, a consciousness of a presence behind that of the characters - not an intrusive 19th-century author-observer, to be sure - but a presence all the same. According to Flannery O'Conner it is always wrong "to say that you can't do this or you can't do that in fiction. You can do anything has ever gotten away with much." I hesitate to say then that a writer can't change points of view so often or enter into her own story. Bridgers has, and if she has not gotten clean away with it, she has certainly written a lovely book - a book for all of us who crave a good story about people we will come to care about deeply.