Sue Ellen Bridgers is an accomplished writer, one who can bring a scene or the memory of some adolescent yearning or frustration into sharp and vivid focus. In her prize-winning novels for young people she has confronted many of life's most demanding trials -- accidents, the death of parents, social rejection, the realignment of family -- and she has done so with a clear-eyed toughness.
But her toughness has always been softened by sentiment. Now with her first novel aimed solely at an adult market, it's apparent that Bridgers' sentiment, unchecked and uncontrolled, fast becomes sentimentality.
"Sara Will" is a maddeningly soft-centered romance, maddening because even with its melodrama and sappiness, there are flashes of the old Bridgers brilliance with words. In fact, what Bridgers has forgotten to give us here is not so much good writing as logic and plausibility, the absence of which finally spoils the book.
At the novel's core is an improbable circumstance: the protagonist, Fate Jessop (his first name fraught with symbolism), shelters his runaway teen-aged niece through her pregnancy and the birth of her illegitimate child, all the while successfully keeping her whereabouts secret from his brother who lives in the same state. We're expected to believe he could have done so in the 1980s, with television and computerized missing-person lists. The unlikelihood of this circumstance, on which the entire plot is predicated, pervades everything that happens.
In many ways "Sara Will" is more like a romantic daydream than a novel. Its shape is that of a voluntary fantasy, the kind we self-indulgently weave of events in unlikely but satisfying combinations. In this case, the daydream is classic: an unappreciated middle-aged spinster finds true love. Fifty-year-old Sara Will (another symbolic name), is living out her life, set in her ways and barricaded in the family house in rural North Carolina against the intrusion of others, when one day a pickup truck rattles into the driveway. The driver is Fate Jessop, his passengers the niece and her baby. Sara Will's life is changed forever.
How Fate comes to find Sara is a complicated product of coincidence and contrivance involving a past relationship between the Jessop family and Sara Will's family. Fate's brother was briefly married to Sara Will's older sister, Serena, who died in childbirth 20 years ago. That relationship, in addition to providing the novel with a mawkish undercurrent as Sara continually harks back to her unresolved grief at Serena's death, is the reason for Fate Jessop's ending up in the driveway of Sara Will's house, and finally in her bed.
And so we have what amounts to a long seduction, as Sara first tries to cast out the intruders, who see her isolated house as a refuge from discovery, then accepts them, and finally grows to love Fate and his fellow travelers. It's a relatively simple outline but one that Bridgers embroiders incessantly with all-too-precious scenes of downy-headed sleeping babies, cozy Christmas preparations, and long tearful looks exchanged between people yearning for what they think they cannot have.
When Bridgers turns her gaze away from the cloying atmosphere at Sara Will's house, we can't help but be relieved, as when Fate reminisces about his life alone before the arrival of his niece, or when Sara remembers a bus trip she made as a teen-ager with an elderly and eccentric aunt and uncle: "At Durham, Uncle Charles insisted they get off the bus. Nothing Sara Will could say could disprove his contention that another passenger, a young man in a greasy fedora and drab green work clothes who had boarded near Greensboro and taken a seat across the aisle and two rows behind them, was a convict recognized from an FBI poster left hanging in the Tyler Mills Post Office for fifteen years."
One would like more about Uncle Charles and Aunt Saluda. They are a much-needed astringent, but, alas, only with us for a page. Let's hope that Bridgers returns to her old me'tier -- novels, whether they be for adolescents or adults, that speak more honestly, that tell more authentic stories.