cover image Nora Jane: A Life in Stories

Nora Jane: A Life in Stories

Ellen Gilchrist. Back Bay Books, $14.95 (448pp) ISBN 978-0-316-05838-4

Gilchrist (I, Rhoda Manning, Go Hunting With My Daddy) gathers 14 moving, lightly humorous short stories (previously published) and a novella (new) starring Nora Jane Whittington, as she robs a New Orleans old-boys bar with icy aplomb and sets off, ""like a woman in a dream,"" to meet her faithless lover in San Francisco. Rising above a tragic upbringing, Nora Jane becomes a ""self-taught anarchist and quick-change artist"" set to scam her way out of the South. But when she pulls her gun on wealthy bookstore owner Freddy Harwood, her steely edge melts in his all-consuming adoration. Then Nora Jane must learn to accept the blessings that rain down upon her, starting when Freddy marries her and raises her gifted twin girls of dubious paternity as if they were his own. Gilchrist finds a font of inspiration in Nora Jane, an intriguing blend of magnolia charm and iron will, and in her circle of friends, whose fierce love and faith invites serendipity at every turn. With insightful, illuminating prose, Gilchrist nimbly slips into their lives, story after story, to meditate on the miracles that see them through dark days. The Berkeley milieu, with its giant Buddha statue that captures Nora Jane's fancy, inspires Gilchrist to spike her writing with a heady optimism, mingling science with mysticism and dabbles of magical realism. Even Freddy's illness brings out the wonders of Gilchrist's world. Frequent overlap between stories cause a few narrative bumps, but that's a minor quibble. Taken together, the stories amount to a stirring saga of a charmed life.