cover image Distance from the Heart CL

Distance from the Heart CL

Ashley Warlick. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $21.95 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-395-74177-1

The youngest winner of the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship, 23-year-old Warlick shows a gift for fluent, lilting language in a first novel that celebrates a young woman's emotional deepening during a summer with her sweetly oddball family. Mavis Black comes home to lush, rural Edisto, S.C., from Appalachian State, where she has been sent by her grandfather, Punk, to get a bookkeeping degree so that she can help run his thriving vineyards. The big June event is Aunt Hazel's wedding to Sal Arceldi, a ""divorced Mormon I-talian,'' nuptials entailing a merger between Punk's grapes and Sal's winery. With romance in the air, Mavis frets about Harris, the lover she has left behind. She is also plagued by nearly incestuous feelings for her hard-drinking, reckless, mean-as-a-snake Uncle Owen, only four years older than she, and her adored companion since childhood. Soon after Mavis's arrival, Owen flees to Saudi Arabia, leaving one old girlfriend who flaunts the fact that she doesn't wear underwear, and one new teenage conquest, who may be pregnant. Mavis and these two women drive to visit Harris, dressed as a knight for a ""Renaissance Faire""; Hazel returns solo and disillusioned from her honeymoon; while Punk, dying of cancer, tries to save the merger with Sal. Warlick gets the Southern atmosphere just right: the heavy, drugged summer days, the rampant kudzu and the quaint family rituals. But Mavis has a tendency to speak in platitudes and to invest everything with cosmic significance. And the dreamily introspective prose, meant to reveal the protagonist's sensibility, is often overwrought, so heavily portentous and cloying that it undermines what would otherwise be an appealing tale about the bonds of family and the responsibilities of love. Author tour. (Apr.)