Duke University Alumni Magazine

Roxanna Slade

By Reynolds Price '55. Scribner, 1998. 301 pages. $25.

t age sixty-five, now author of more than thirty books that demonstrate his talent in a wide range of genres--fiction, drama, essay, translation, criticism, memoir, as well as work for television and radio--Reynolds Price has solidified his position as one of America's litterateurs. He certainly is one of the South's most prominent writers, a fading pantheon that includes Eudora Welty and William Styron '47, Hon. '68.

In the last five years, Price has published his Collected Stories and Collected Poems, as well as the final novel in the trilogy A Great Circle, a project that began with The Surface of the Earth in 1975, followed by The Source of Light in 1981 and The Promise of Rest in 1995. The three novels chronicle the fate of one family over the course of nine decades, and, in this sense, Price's new novel, Roxanna Slade, might be described as a one-volume condensation of the trilogy--bringing the same sense of closure to his novels as the collected works did to his shorter fiction and poetry.

Certainly Roxanna Slade, born at the turn of the century and now in her mid- nineties, has closure on her mind, and circles figure prominently in this leisurely, discursive, at turns fascinating and frustrating book. "I'm as old as humans get to be with rare exceptions," she tells her readers--the novel is her memoir of her long life. "And the main hint that I've picked up on the subject of immortality has come with my age in the past ten years.... I don't mean that people learn nothing from life, but the hearts and souls they bring are extremely persistent." Price chose no epigraph for the book, but he might have taken Stanza V from Wordsworth's famous "Intimations of Immortality": "But trailing clouds of glory do we come/From God, who is our home."

Roxanna paraphrases the sentiment in her own simple words. "We come here from somewhere that shaped us already," she concludes at the novel's end. "After so many years we head out again for maybe that homeplace or somewhere else that keeps on lasting."

Roxanna Slade begins on the morning of the heroine's twentieth birthday, October 8, 1920. Her younger brother, Fern, has borrowed the family Model T for the eight-mile trip--quite a journey, to hear Roxanna tell it--to the Slade farm, where he had worked during the summer and befriended Larkin Slade. Fern has a surprise for his sister: He has primed Lark with the expectation of meeting his future bride. As it turns out, Roxanna is a more than willing participant in the ruse.

"This Slade boy though wore a curious close glove of light all around him," she recalls, and his presence has a powerful effect on her. "My body stayed completely quiet, but slowly it seemed to grow lighter and larger and a good deal stronger till my two arms could fold Lark in like a needy soul. And once I had him held safe with me, I went on growing, adding circles around him as if I were a tree till he was rocking deep inside my new mind and chest--no risk of harm or loss, not to him anyhow." Roxanna's vision, one of many to follow, proves portentous in unexpected ways: She and the Slades will be forever bound in ever-widening circles of love, betrayal, and redemption by a sudden accident that changes everything.

The novel, though propelled by a series of shocking events right from the start, is hardly plot-driven. Roxanna is a chatty narrator, given to speculation on subjects as diverse as good sex and brain chemistry. Mostly, she holds forth on race relations and women's liberation, two subjects Price explores at length. She also suffers from severe depression, one reason the book is so melancholic in tone, often dark and lugubrious--if ultimately hopeful.

In fact, much of Roxanna's story concerns her struggle to overcome suicidal tendencies, to continue on while staring (as she puts it) into the pit of Hell. "The dark wind clamping your eyes never quits--not entirely," she says, describing one of her ordeals. "You tended to look on the dark side of everything, you were sadly ungrateful for life's simple gifts, you were selfishly choosing to shut the window and doors of your mind and refuse air and light." Neither science nor religion is a source of solace for such lost souls: Roxanna even speculates that God for unknowable reasons is the source of her torment. "At my own worst I'd open the Bible many times a week and look at that hardest verse of all in the tenth chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews--'It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.' All I could ever say back was Amen."

Roxanna is not easy to like. She is paranoid, self-absorbed, and needy--traits common to Price's characters, who live, as he has said, "beneath the world perceived by other people." She can be honest with herself, confessing her irrational urges to harm those she loves most, yet she fails to recognize, or only glibly acknowledges, the burdens she places on others, including her formidable mother-in-law, her husband, her sister, her son and daughter--all of whom, by the way, come laden with their own flaws. But Price seems to want to distance readers from his characters (as his characters distance themselves from each other) in order that we see them more clearly--and thus, perhaps, come to value them more dearly (as his characters do each other).

Price's heightened lyricism (accented by dialogue approaching verse drama), his sepia tones (a mixture of respect for tradition and mawkish nostalgia), and his digressive narratives aren't for everyone. Those who like

his work will find him in good form in Roxanna Slade, once again shifting through the remains of history to discern the humanity hidden within. There's a century-worth of both history and humanity in this novel.

--Rex Roberts

Roberts is a freelance writer, editor, and designer living in New York.

Suddenly Single: Money Skills for Divorcees and Widows

By Kerry Hannon '82. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998. 204 pages. $14.95 paper.

ven when the pain of losing a spouse is still raw, unwelcome realities of everyday life intrude and demand attention. Avoiding those realities is a common reaction. Yet there is one area of life that can't be put on hold: finances. This time when a woman feels most fragile and least able to think about her financial future is the most important time to take charge. That's the message of Kerry Hannon in her book Suddenly Single: Money Skills for DivorcŽes and Widows. Hannon has written an easy-to-use guidebook that makes the potentially overwhelming topic of personal finances a manageable process. Step by step, she walks the reader through what must be done to achieve financial independence.

But why read a book written by someone who is not one of the "suddenly single"? (She dedicated the book to her husband, Cliff Hackel.) Gathering and explaining complex financial information is a job that Hannon has done expertly for years. This USA Today columnist has written about tax preparation, savings, 401(k) fees, the marriage-tax penalty, and mutual funds. She has worked at U.S. News & World Report, Money, and Forbes, and penned the 10 Minute Guide to Retirement for Women. Her experience prepared her to use clear, economical language that makes her advice easy to follow and that engages the reader.

This slim volume is a gem; its layout, writing style, and brevity make it approachable. Readers will find a measure of comfort in the information that is clearly explained in a calm, conversational tone. Hannon administers just the right dose of sympathy to the reader before she gets down to business with tough-love advice: "To rebuild your life, you need to get a grip on your finances as quickly as possible," she writes. "Making the effort to learn about money will give you the knowledge and confidence to handle your own finances."

Though the book is aimed at the financial novice, Hannon is neither condescending nor simplistic. She prods those who are frozen by uncertainty or prone to procrastination ("action is empowering") and sets priorities for what must be done quickly and what can wait until the emotional dust settles. Her advice ranges from the most basic ("make about two dozen copies of your husband's death certificate," and a comprehensive list of the financial and legal papers that need to be located) to insurance needs, employee benefits, saving and investing, and will and retirement planning. She includes a glossary, recommended reading, and information resources.

Separate chapters address the different issues for widows and divorcŽes, but subsequent chapters apply to both groups. In "A Budget that Works," Hannon provides an exercise on developing a budget--which includes a helpful list of questions to calculate net worth, worksheets on expenses, and recommendations about good software programs for budgeting and money management. Typical of her no-nonsense advice is this warning: "The most important thing to remember is that this is not a time to be careless with your funds or hand over all the decisions to someone else. It's your life, your money, and your responsibility. Moreover, it's definitely not the time to spend on nonessential items to make yourself feel better for a while in superficial ways."

The goal of becoming "financially literate" underpins the chapter "Investing 101." It's an especially worthwhile section, full of clear explanations of bonds, stocks, CDs, mutual funds, and more--even explaining how to read quotations in the newspaper. The chapter about on-line investing is destined to be outdated quickly, given the exponential growth of information and products available on-line: The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition, for instance, offers financial information and advice to subscribers, as well as e-mail alerts about market swings and breaking business news. Still, the information is useful, thanks to Hannon's expertise in assessing websites and personal-finance software.

Personal-finance books are big business. An Internet search for "women and finance" books turns up 1,000-plus titles--from "Maxing Out: Why Women Sabotage Their Financial Independence" to "A Girl Needs Cash: Banish the White Knight Myth & Take Charge of Your Financial Life." The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom by Suze Orman, "practical and spiritual advice," has been on The New York Times' best seller list for nearly a year.

Suddenly Single is different because it targets such a specific audience and because it compiles practical solutions to life's personal-finance mysteries in a single source. Particularly for readers without financial expertise, this book is a godsend. It also would be helpful for adult children who find themselves in charge of their aging parents' finances and don't know where to begin.

It is statistically likely that most women will be on their own one day, says Hannon. So, if a friend has recently been widowed or divorced, send flowers and a note of support, but also send Suddenly Single.

--Allison Adams

Adams, the former director of communications at Duke's Fuqua School of Business, is a communications consultant.

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