There was a time when I thought I read widely, and perhaps I did, but in recent years my tendency has been to read about five new books a year, with the rest of my reading time devoted to re-reading a select group of novels that have been on my bookshelf forever and are now looking more than a bit rumpled, scuffed and dog-eared due to wear. I guess you could say I’ve loved these books to exhaustion without ever feeling that they are exhausted, as tired as they may appear. Their stories are ingrained in me, yet, surprisingly, my utter familiarity with them does not breed contempt. Every time I step into their pages the experience feels as vivid and fresh as the first time. These books dazzle me with their insights, make me fall in love all over again with language, and move me with their understanding of what it is to be human: to love and lose and love again; to falter and find redemption; to birth something new into the world and undergo its attendant changes; or to face death (not necessarily one’s own) and find some form of solace or level of acceptance in the experience.
There are close to ten books I count among my favorites: some are melancholy and austere while others embrace an upbeat outlook and exude humor, even while a canopy of something wistful hangs over them — usually an ending of some sort — which is precisely the case for a small novel by Josephine Humphreys, published in 1987, titled Rich in Love. A coming-of-age story set in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, Rich in Love’s heroine, Lucille Odom, is one of the most straight-forwardly intelligent teenagers one will ever meet in literature. Lucille has an approach to life that is very no-nonsense, on one hand, and deeply romantic on the other, though hers is not the starry-eyed, girly notion of romance, but romance in the broad, philosophical sense. She’s a curious observer who contemplates the mysteries of life and the inner workings of her own family — her parents Warren and Helen and her older sister Rae — all of whom she loves like crazy and who seem to be unraveling in ways Lucille never saw coming, if only because she thinks of them as being part of a perfect unit, living in the perfect old house. (Perfect due to its placement in a sleepy suburb of Charleston, on property which left it “hidden” on one side in a tangle of camellia growth while the other side had a curving porch facing Charleston harbor, such that “on one side it was closed and protected, and on the other — wide open to possibilities.”) The Odom home is significant in this story, it’s a prism through which we glean insights into each member of Lucille’s family, and its description foreshadows the arc their story will take.
“All around me I saw the American family blowing apart, as described in Psychology Today. The American family needed to hold itself more closely, I thought. Like mine,” Lucille notes early on in her story, while thinking about her friend Wayne Frobiness, whose parents had just separated.
We were a hermit family. We had each other and we had our house, and nothing could touch us. Whereas Dr. Frobiness had run off with a lady who team-taught the Episcopal Young Churchmen with him at St. Anne’s. The Frobinesses had been active in the community, members not only of the church, but also of a fitness center, a plastic surgeons’ supper club, a book club (Mrs. Frobiness), and a wind-surfing group (Dr. Frobiness). No family can stick together under the strain of so many outside interests. The human heart needs to be confined, not royally entertained, was my theory.†
Lucille has lots of theories about the human heart, many of them quite astute, but this one doesn’t hold up. In her seventeenth year, just before she is to graduate high school, her mother leaves home to start a new life. Her departure doesn’t rattle Lucille personally — the Odom women are, on the whole, rather independent — but it causes her to be alarmed for her father, a man whom she believes will be like a fish without water without his wife. Her mother’s disappearance (and it is a disappearance in the sense that Helen is quite secretive about where she is staying, though she does make occasional phone calls home to check in with them) sets off a chain of events, the first being Lucille and Warren’s search to find her. They know she didn’t go far, so for a matter of weeks they drive around the city of Charleston, visiting places where they think she is likely to hang out, with Lucille at the wheel because her father has had his license suspended. In her exhaustion of worrying over her father and trying to help him in his search, Lucille begs her sister Rae to return home from college in Washington, DC, to help out. Reluctantly Rae agrees, but when she finally shows up she has her own surprise in tow, having eloped along the way with her boyfriend Billy, whom the rest of the Odoms have never met. Having a stranger in the house leaves Lucille feeling further strained, especially when she learns that Rae and Billy are having a baby — one they didn’t plan and aren’t prepared for — necessitating their need to move into the Odom house for awhile.
Through the hot South Carolina summer and into its warm fall, Lucille sets aside the normal concerns of someone her age and assumes the role of family caretaker. And through her eyes we see love as a mutable force, capable not only of surviving life’s sea changes — its abrupt endings, new beginnings, and experiences we call mistakes — but of transforming and strengthening us in the process. In Lucille Odom, author Josephine Humphreys gives us a heroine who views the world with a fresh perspective and an old soul, whose observations are humorous, insightful, deeply felt and full of compassion. She also gives us a book that more than lives up to its title, and I’ll end this review with an excerpt that proves it.
Sometimes I felt a strong urge to quit loving my father. Just quit, the way you can go down to a bank and draw out your life’s savings. It was a kind of love that tuckered me out while returning no great reward, and maybe that is how it’s meant to be, so that sooner or later a child will realize love is more wisely invested elsewhere than in a parent.
But at the time I was still locked into a habit of deep devotion and could not have got out of it if I’d tried. Most love works that way: you can’t get out until its natural term is up.
I did love him, no doubt about that. From a burning houseful of friends and relations I would have dragged him out first and never given a thought to the others until he was safe. But the love itself, the work of it, was debilitating, requiring me to constantly imagine the world from his point of view. Dragging him from a burning house would have been easier. I could not just relax and take things as they came. I had to think at every instant, what does this mean to him, this television show, this rainstorm, this new marriage? Sometimes his perspective came easily to me, and I could know instantly what he was thinking, but more and more often the effort became a strain. It was like looking through someone else’s eyeglasses: you can do it if you squint down to the exact right point and tighten the tiny muscles behind your eyeballs, but it hurts, and when it’s over you can’t see with your own vision for some time.†
†Rich in Love, copyright © 1987 by Josephine Humphreys (Viking Penguin Inc., New York, 1987, pp. 15, 77-78)