"You've got spunk," Lou Grant says to Mary Richards on the very first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And then he adds, famously, "I hate spunk." The year is 1970, the same year in which Jeannette Walls set her new novel, The Silver Star. In the book, someone tells the 12-year-old narrator, Bean Holladay, that she's got spunk too. Maybe it's no coincidence. 1970, after all, was situated squarely in the middle of second-wave feminism. It was an era when women and girls were asserting themselves and finding their voices, which weren't always met with approval.
Unlike Lou Grant, I don't happen to hate spunk. Unexpected bravery and toughness can be thrilling in life and on screen, and, of course, on the page. Think of Scout Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird gets referred to more than once in this book). But a character can't just be brave and tough; she also has to be real. What I mean is that life has to have been breathed into her through that special CPR that writers sometimes perform so effortlessly. Certainly Walls breathed life into all the characters in her powerful first book, The Glass Castle.
But that's memoir, you might be thinking, so of course the characters are real. Yet we only know them through the strength of Walls' descriptions, where they're as real on the page as they are in life. That's no small feat. In fact, it's a pretty big one.
You'd think that a novelist would have a lot more freedom with her characters — after all, she can make them do and feel and say whatever she wants. But The Silver Star doesn't feel nearly as free as The Glass Castle, which puzzled and surprised me. I was so onboard to read this book; so onboard to love it. Like someone rooting for their horse in a horse race, I thought, come on, Jeannette Walls, come on!
The Silver Star is narrated by a brave heroine with an earnest voice, but Bean and her older sister, Liz, are often adrift, not only in their own lives, but also within this story, which can seem unsure of what it wants to be. Is it meant for adults or teenagers? Is it a character piece or an adventure tale? At first, there are strong echoes of The Glass Castle, as an unstable, narcissistic mother flits in and out of her young daughters' lives. Charlotte Holladay is trying to make it as a singer, but her talent may well be as imaginary as her boyfriend. Mark Parker, she tells her daughters, drives a yellow Triumph TR3 and wrote the arrangement for the hit song "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." But neither girl has ever met him, and even the name "Mark Parker" seems like something a child would make up. This is a clever touch, because Charlotte is more childlike than her children.
But just when the book seems to be compellingly about this whacked-out mother and her vulnerable daughters, Charlotte abandons Bean and Liz in order to pursue her singing career full time. The girls, in what seems to me to be a too-resourceful move, hop a bus cross-country to live in Virginia with relatives they don't know, and the book goes off in a different, shakier direction.
In their new home, assorted family members and townspeople speak in folksy soundbites. As her Aunt Al says to Bean, "You don't know too much about your daddy, do you, sugar? ... You got his spark, I do believe." Later, on the subject of integration, Uncle Clarence observes, "Ducks got more sense than that Supreme my-ass Court." This kind of dialogue doesn't let us in on anything weird or special about these people, who speak as if with one generic, homespun voice.
There's a plot involving an attack on Liz by the leering mill foreman Jerry Maddox, and an ensuing court case, just like in To Kill a Mockingbird, but it feels pretty simplistic. I needed more complexity and richer, subtler notes.
Maybe, like her two young characters in The Silver Star, the author is herself on a kind of unexpected journey, trying to figure out how to move from memoirist to novelist. This isn't necessarily an easy shift, nor is it mandatory. Sometimes a memoirist stays in the world of memoir too long, and there are diminishing returns, because all the really good stuff happened in book one, and by the time book two or three comes along, it's basically all outtakes and small, vaguely unsatisfying potatoes. But Jeanette Walls doesn't seem to want to stay in The Glass Castle forever. Having found an amazing story in her own life, she seems to be poking around in the nebulous space that includes things she's experienced and things she hasn't. If she wants to go back to fiction again, then deepening her characters is always a good idea, and it would definitely make her work more textured and moving and real. Not only that, it might even show spunk.
Meg Wolitzer's most recent book is The Interestings.