THE SCHOOL OF BEAUTY AND CHARM
Sumner, author of the story collection Polite Society, has written a sure-footed first novel with no idea where to go: her voice is clear, yet the story she tells is anything but. At the outset, the focus is on the fractious, flamboyant Peppers clan of Counterpoint, Ga.: Louise, the narrator; her older brother, Roderick, a boy with severe asthma; her father, Henry, a punctilious, warm-hearted cardboard plant manager; and her mother, Florida, the high-strung, artistic, ambitious daughter of Kentucky hill folk, desperate to make her family respectable. Defiant and deeply troubled Louise has other plans, especially after Roderick's accidental death. But whereas Sumner's rendering of Louise's upbringing is filled with finely observed moments, Louise's downward spiral is loose and untidy. It is never made quite clear why Louise seduces a worker at her father's plant, applies to clown school, rejects religion, runs off to the circus or becomes an alcoholic—although Louise insists she's guilty of Roderick's death, the pacing of the novel is so erratic that her grief and growing-up both become hard to follow. The novel's many vivid and provocative characters aren't given much to do other than provide a colorful backdrop, and the book's often uproarious humor tries a bit too hard to entertain. The novel falters until the last bittersweet section, which finds Louise among a loony and lovable group of alcoholic carnies. While not without charm and some strong writing, Louise's story reads as if Sumner discovered the tale she should have written hiding in this novel's last hundred pages. (Sept. 28)
Forecast:Sumner, winner of a Whiting Award, is a writer of great promise, but in this first novel she fails to harness her storytelling abilities. Still, a cheeky cover and an author tour should attract some readers, particularly in the South.