Review: “Rich in Love,” a novel by Josephine Humphreys (Viking Penguin)


Depleted by minimalism?  Freaked for our future by the literary Brat Pack?  Yearning for another feisty female voice?

Meet Lucille Odom, 17, narrator of Josephine Humphreys’ second novel, Rich in Love, and direct descendant of Eudora Welty’s narrator in Why I Live at the P.O.  A maximalist, Lucille is filled not with anomie but with love—for Charleston, her house, even shifting the car from reverse to first, “a moment of grace between backward and forward.”  Romantic love has yet to hit, but “Do not think I didn’t know what love was….It had been accumulating silently over the years like equity in a house.  I was rich in love.”  Not the usual shrugging adolescent then, whom Lucille herself cannot abide: “People my age were murder.”

But never mind peers, what compels Lucille is the universe.  Setting her apart is a “hardly noticeable” harelip (though “Does ‘hardly noticeable’ mean ‘noticeable’ or ‘not noticeable’?”), but setting her above is a finely tuned vigilance: “Let the world do its worst, Lucille Odom was ready.”  For its part the world is doing just that.  A Latinist, she cites the battle of Herculaneum; surveying history, she sees “men in packs making messes”; monitoring Charleston’s naval base, she watches submarines sneak out “like Mafia Cadillacs.”  Clearly, something dire is afoot—a prospect paralyzing most “heroes” of contemporary fiction but animating Lucille: “Beauty doubled and tripled around me.  The place was doomed.”  Biking past the mall she sees shopping as “an indicator of human trust in the future,” exclaiming, “Look at them swarming into the Garden Centre, coming out with flats of two-toned petunias and soaker-hoses!”

Precocious?  No; as D.H. Lawrence noted, “Man has his excess always on his hands,” and Lucille has a dose.

Vigilant though she is, Lucille is blindsided by the sudden exit of her mother, Helen, the act mobilizing the novel’s story.  Reviewing the past, Lucille had failed to connect the dots: her newly retired father trailing Helen as she vacuums; her own expectations of Helen as chauffeur-laundress; Helen’s discontent with bequeathing rather than using a lore ranging from Walt Whitman to Supreme Court decisions to Indian health care.  Thus, when Helen calls in, Lucille’s first question to her is, “Well, is this something feminist…or is it something real?”  Understanding is within Lucille’s reach, though.  “Probably every woman has a singing self,” she thinks.  But what about Helen?  When Lucille sees Helen again—a meeting forced by Black friend Rhody who acknowledges Lucille’s talent for observation but insists she move—Helen reacts to her tearful daughter with the off-key remark, “It didn’t occur to me that you would be hurt.”  Hello?

Meanwhile, what can Lucille do, “stupid, seventeen, powerless,” but rewrite Helen’s farewell note for more feeling, cook for her father, and provide commentary?  Pop, a fey mix of demolitions expert and innocent, lies in bed like “an odalisque,” fending off despair with pre-Helen memories, taking up finally (to Lucille’s chagrin) with Vera Oxendine, the barbershop’s stylist.  And sister Rae, leaving a Washington job to “fix” things at home, shows up married, pregnant, and depressed—no help at all.  Lucille’s comment:

I don’t know why so many women do not foresee the future….[It] hits them, and they say, Oh! A baby!  Oh! A divorce!  They have no foresight whatsoever, and get into situations they could easily have avoided with a little thought, a little observation, a little contraception.

It is enough to make Lucille “quit loving…the way you can go down to a bank and draw out your life’s savings.”  But not if you are “rich in love.”

Out of this chaos Humphreys presents a sympathetic male: new brother-in-law Billy, a historian.  At first a threat, he is soon Lucille’s tutor: “Not only did I pass with all A’s, but I found myself walking around with an overview.”  But even better, in a priceless scene, he connects with her: “You come across strong as Fort Sumter…but then half of your sentences start out with ‘I love.’  You have a lot of love in you.”  Well!  Lucille is in love (“That was the me.  I had been recognized”), but that cannot be expressed to Billy, so sometime-boyfriend Wayne, next on the dock, is the surprised beneficiary.  Initially secret love for Billy suffices (“No wear-and-tear”), but soon enough she is stifling “inappropriate” remarks that would reveal everything, like “Don’t wear that shirt,” comments one makes “only to a loved one.”

With experience Lucille may ditch the notion that love manipulates, along with the one that marriage confines.  Certainly, she has given the subject due thought.  Now to focus on the other half of Freud’s love-and-work formula for happiness: work.  Because, attenzione: Given her “excess,” Lucille will either find the cure for AIDS or become the crank in Accounting.  And, crucially, she must address something else: her literal formative experience.  Lucille survived her mother’s misfired abortion: her legacy is a lost twin and the harelip.  This, coupled with her mother’s beauty, is emotional dynamite that the novel, while noting “that searching nozzle,” only skims.

But no matter.  Humphreys has created what a reviving Pop Odom went looking for: a “permanent” book.  The Odoms are real, not Southern gothics; the humor is on-point, not hit-and-run.  The story surges.  And there is the splendid Lucille, who lives and, unlike the fictional representatives of the prevailing slackjaw chic, cares.  Can that spirit hold as she matures?  Her evaluation of Huck Finn suggests transformation:

If you are a girl, you say to yourself, this kid has a long way to go.  He is so happy with his Jim, and his raft, and his old river…Boys have that extended phase of innocence.  I do not think girls have it at all.  Imagine Becky Thatcher writing that book and you have an altogether different concept.  You have something darker.

Coraggio, Lucille.  And tell it.

Carla Seaquist has published in The Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post, and other publications.