A WOMAN OF SALT

Mary Potter Engel, Author . Counterpoint $24 (256p) ISBN 1-58243-156-6

Engel aims high with this intriguing blend of theology and fiction, juxtaposing the coming-of-age story of a girl from a family of wanderers with a series of explications of Lot's wife's flight from Sodom. As the novel begins, 40-year-old Ruth VanderZicht receives news that her mother is dying and is flooded by memories of her rocky childhood. By the time she left home for college at 16, her family had lived in countless rundown apartments and motels, mostly in Florida, following her restless, ne'er-do-well father. Ruth, the second of five children, is oppressed by her parents' strict Dutch Calvinism, and she struggles to understand her own faith through college, multiple marriages and a career in academe. Her '60s-era rebellion manifests itself in mind-expanding mescaline trips ("Ruth willed herself to believe Huxley was right: Mescaline would help a poor visualizer like herself") and copious references to the works of William Blake. At its worst, the overearnest prose approaches self-parody ("or when, in silence, I withhold myself, safe with my ponderings, minding my own rhythms of exile and return"), and the periodic detours into biblical exegesis are more distracting than enriching. Still, there is much here of value. Engel's vivid depiction of Ruth's hardscrabble Florida childhood and Dutch Calvinist background might have carried the book alone—the material is unfamiliar and her treatment of it fascinating, leaving the reader wanting more. (Nov. 15)

Reviewed on: 10/22/2001
Release date: 11/01/2001
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