Book review: A Virtuous Woman
A Virtuous Woman by Kaye Gibbons. Not recommended.
In A Virtuous Woman, Kaye Gibbons tells the story of the daughter of Southern gentry, Ruby Pitt Woodrow Stokes; her tenant farmer second husband, Jack Stokes; and those who affect their lives most — Burr, his wife Tiny Fran, her delinquent son Roland, and their daughter June.
Gibbons uses a technique of alternating chapters, with the first written by Jack, the next by Ruby, and so on, until the last chapter. Chapter sixteen is written in the third person omniscient, with characters’ thoughts sprinkled throughout in italics. This method is effective in the beginning, where Jack talks about his reaction to the news that Ruby has been diagnosed with lung cancer and her silent, selfish request for a cigarette, while next she talks about her response to his reaction and her own motivation. Further into the plot, however, this method loses its impact as the reminiscences become more random and less structured.
Although the idea of alternating chapters, most flashbacks except Jack’s chapters toward the end, lends itself to a more dynamic approach to time, Gibbons keeps it virtually linear, from Ruby’s youth and disastrous first marriage to a drunken, controlling migrant worker named John Woodrow and his death to her marriage to Jack, the notable events of their lives, Ruby’s death, and Jack’s life after Ruby.
A Virtuous Woman is well written and in a few instances somewhat insightful. The characters, however, often seem to lack interest or depth; some, like Woodrow, Tiny Fran, and Roland, are little more than stock rural characters (no-good man, no-good teenaged girl, no-good bastard). They appear primarily to fulfill a standard a role and have little interest — they exist only to explain such things as Ruby’s path toward Jack and the Stokes’s unusual interest in Burr and Tiny Fran’s daughter June. When Woodrow is critically injured in a drunken brawl, the wives of the other migrant workers feel Ruby should “stand by her man” no matter what, which also seems to perpetuate a type rather than offer any real insight.
Above all, A Virtuous Woman feels forced and unnatural. It is out of character for a barely literate man like Jack Stokes to document his memories, including quoted conversations, in such detail and with such care. This would have been a stronger story if presented as an oral history rather than a written one.
The unlikely love story and marriage of Jack Stokes and Ruby Pitt Woodrow Stokes has potential, as do the characters. Unfortunately, Gibbons does not have the depth as an author to uncover it.
19 August 2003
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
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