Susan Rebecca White's latest novel, A SOFT PLACE TO LAND, takes place in Atlanta and San Francisco but its real locale is never-never land, a place where people never have to grow up. The two lead characters in this story, half-sisters Ruthie and Julia, are almost adamantly opposed to maturing even though the book covers a span of sixteen years and takes the girls from their teens into their late twenties and early thirties. This immaturity blunts the impact of the story even though White possesses true story-telling skills.
At the start of the story Ruthie and Julia live in Atlanta with Naomi and Phil. Naomi is both girls' mother but she had been married previously to Matt who is Julia's father. Phil is Ruthie's biological father but both girls treat him the same. Because they both love their "parents" they are devastated by an accident that takes their lives. This tragedy and how they react to it forms the core of the story.
The book largely reflects Ruthie's viewpoint on things. She is the youngest sister and the more emotional of the two. Ruthie depends upon Julia for stability but Julia has a wild streak that gets her into trouble time and time again. Ruthie's life is fairly simple as compared to Julia's but she seems to find more anguish and disillusionment in the everyday occurrences.
Susan Rebecca White is a very astute writer as she showed in her debut novel BOUND SOUTH. In this second book she once again shows her skills in painting portraits of characters and bringing them to life. As you read the book you definitely get to know Ruthie and Julia, perhaps too much as you get a view of warts and all.
The core problem with the story is that neither Ruthie nor Julia is particularly likeable. They are much too whiny or too wild or too self-centered, and they never change. The reader goes through the pages looking for resolution but it never actually comes. Some may find glimmers but overall the characters remain in the same state of play where they have always been.
The amazing thing about this book is its ability to impress you with the author's writing skills while not making you embrace the characters. They are two people you want to pull a Cher on and say, "Snap out of it!" as she did in "Moonstruck." Maybe that would wake them up and let them get on with their lives.
Susan Rebecca White's talent is a wondrous thing but it didn't provide me with a story this time out that appealed to me. Readers come in all ages and genders so others may receive this tale more warmly than I did - especially those who are "sisters."
A SOFT PLACE TO LAND is published by Touchstone Books. It contains 352 pages and sells for $14.99.
Jackie K. Cooper