Elaine, the heroine of Robin McCorquodale's first novel, "Dansville," is like a Brazil nut -- hard to crack but worth the trouble. "She's mean," one of her brothers warns a suitor. She isn't exactly mean, just ornery and very independent. That's the outside. The inside is quite a different story, and the stuff of romantic fiction. Once a man who wants her and is worthy of her discovers her vulnerability, she's like Samson shorn of his locks.
"Dansville" is a classic story. Boy meets girl. Girl resists boy, making him all the more determined. Boy finally conquers girl. Just as our mothers told us, the quarry is always more interesting when it's hard to get. The only problem is that McCorquodale is so convincing in her portrayal of Elaine's independence and good sense, her hard-to-getness, that her subsequent capitulation, one might even say collapse, doesn't quite follow. But never mind. Consistency of character is the hobgoblin of the literary novel, and "Dansville" is sheer romance. It's big, blowsy and full of emotional high-wire acts and tastefully described sex.
But it has something else too. McCorquodale can, when she puts her mind to it, write very well. She can stun us with passages that are so perceptive, delivered with such a fine voice, that they seem out of place in among the "Her eyes were filling up, and she was biting her lip white" prose that carries most of the story. She's especially skilled at setting little scenes, conveying the life of rural Texas during the '40s:
"They passed a service station whose flashing neon sign was shy of two letters. In the picture window, a man in overalls frowned at a folded city newspaper in which he was working a crossword. Matt honked his horn twice. The man looked up and waved. A black dog, her hair erect along the center of her back, her throat contracted in rage, rushed into the swarm of dust in front of the pump and barked frantically at the blare of the horn."
And she can distill the essence of a place in a few details, as she does with this description of Dansville, the small town where Elaine conducts a real-estate business, a place "with its shops of inferior merchandise and cafes with slices of cake under glass covers and metal stands on which cellophane sacks of potato chips were clipped."
It is there that Elaine, a young war widow, meets Hugh Littleton, a young Princetonion, son of the county's largest landowner, home for his summer vacation and sent by his father to buy some land adjoining the family ranch, thereby getting a little taste of the business. Elaine arranges the sale and gets more than the 4 percent commission she bargained for. She gets herself into an affair with a younger man that threatens the foundations of her life. The twists and turns of Elaine and Hugh's passion and its final not-so-surprising outcome is the novel's principal action.
There are also some wonderful vignettes woven into "Dansville," small narratives that usually serve to place one of the numerous characters. The best, and longest (about 70 pages), concerns the strange courtship of Luther, a cowboy on the Littleton ranch, and Lettie, an abused teen-ager he comes across one day in town. Pregnant by her uncle and cowed by beatings and other cruelties at the hands of her depraved kinfolks, Lettie is like an injured animal -- mute and frightened. Luther takes her to the ranch, nurses her back to physical and mental health and eventually marries her. It's a Cinderella story, of course, but so gracefully told that it shines like a perfect little primitive painting encased in the too-ornate frame of the novel's main narrative.
These small stories -- an account of Elaine and her first love, the story of Hugh's parents and their marriage, as well as Luther and Lettie's courtship -- are the most successful parts of "Dansville," far better, in fact, than the big gushy romance that embraces them. The result is uneven. We're left with a sense that the whole is somehow not quite equal to the sum of its parts. We crave more of the background stories and less of the foreground romance. Robin McCorquodale is probably still finding her way as a writer, and "Dansville" is a showcase for her strengths as well as her weaknesses. In her subsequent work she should play to her strengths.