Readers familiar with Susan Rebecca White’s previous three novels have come to expect from her an ambitious tale that explores themes of fractured family ties, the impact of social class on life paths and the omnipresent lure of the South.
Like her previous books — “Bound South,” “A Soft Place to Land” and “A Place at the Table” — her new novel examines the consequences of those tumultuous subjects. Yet the masterful “We Are All Good People Here,” a book that was five years in the making and inspired by true events, does not stop there. With a surgeon’s delicate precision, White examines sensitive and timely topics such as race, gender inequality, sexual abuse, religion and sexuality.
The novel hits the ground sprinting in 1962, when privileged freshmen Daniella Gold and Eve Whalen instantly bond as college roommates in Virginia. Their connection is deepened by two emotional events, both of which involve discrimination, that play out on the girls-only campus.
First, Eve, who comes from a prominent and wealthy Atlanta family, ignores Daniella’s advice to tread cautiously when championing better working conditions for the school’s black maids. When one of the maids gets fired as a result, Daniella becomes angry at “her silly friend who was so naive she thought she could splash and kick her way into an ocean of oppression and instantly change the tide.” But she believes Eve’s intentions were genuine and her grief over her mistake real, so Daniella shakes it off. She also feels complicit, because she was the one who awakened the blissfully ignorant and impressionable Eve to the plight of minorities.
Soon after, the girls pledge to the most prestigious sorority on campus. Eve is a shoe-in because she’s a “double legacy;” her mother and grandmother are both alumnae. But Daniella is blackballed for having a Jewish father. Outraged, Eve responds by quitting the sorority and — against her family’s protests — transferring to Barnard in New York City with Daniella. The intensity, stubbornness and loyalty they experience during the infancy of their friendship foreshadows the next 30 years of their oft-strained relationship, which grows more complex through marriages and motherhood.
The women start to grow apart when Daniella joins an organized effort to register black voters in Mississippi, leaving behind Eve, whose application was rejected. Eve feels further betrayed when Daniella becomes engaged to a moderate Republican WASP, who doesn’t support the civil rights movement. To prove to herself and Daniella how far she’s willing to go to fight the world’s injustices, Eve takes up with Warren St. Clair, a “brilliant but pretty wild” man who eschews conformity. When Warren pulls Eve deep into a radical collective that organizes against the Vietnam war, her friendship with Daniella grows fraught.
By contrasting the lifestyles of Eve’s family — a “small, intimate world” centered on their 12-acre Buckhead estate, the Piedmont Driving Club and All Saints’ Episcopal Church — with the black woman who irons their clothes, fixes their dinner and practically raises their children, the author captures the complexities of Atlanta’s history in a riveting way reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s 1998 novel “A Man in Full.”
White, an Atlanta native, creates a resounding sense of place and time with seamless references to local cultural artifacts and institutions. Beloved establishments such as A Cappella Books, Manuel’s Tavern and the Majestic Diner are name-dropped as touchstones alongside fiction-meets-fact references to events such as the Orly plane crash in France that killed more than 100 Atlanta arts patrons in 1962.
The author’s intimacy with Atlanta shines when Eve comes back home in 1970 to help fight racism at ground zero, in the South. The collective chooses Atlanta in the hopes of blending in with the city’s counterculture population of peaceful protesters. Living in a shabby house on Euclid Avenue, they forego material comforts to protest imperialism. As part of their resistance, Warren submits a manifesto to the underground publication The Great Speckled Bird that proclaims “revolution was not going to come without bloodshed in the streets.”
Unexpected events, including a mysterious death, eventually send Eve running back to the comfortable lifestyle she once knew and her friendship with Daniella, who has continued to break social barriers in her own way.
For the reader, watching Eve’s dramatic transformation from the bubbly girl who brought a fur coat to college her freshman year into a hardcore rebel who looks the other way while her associates build bombs is mesmerizing. And witnessing her return to “the straight life” as a responsible mother whose activism is confined to throwing money at charities, is equally enchanting.
When a key figure from Eve’s past reappears and threatens to disgrace her family’s standing in the community, Daniella and Eve’s daughters, who are influenced by their mothers’ dynamic, have to navigate the unintended repercussions of Eve’s long-ago actions.
For Daniella and Eve, who have grown as far apart from each other philosophically as Buckhead is from College Park — both geographically and figuratively — the disruption begs the question of whether they can make it through yet another upheaval in their friendship.
Susan Rebecca White. “We Are All Good People Here” book launch presented by A Cappella Books. 6 p.m. Aug. 10. $27, includes signed copy of the book. The Carter Center, 453 John Lewis Freedom Parkway, Atlanta. 404-681-5128, www.acappellabooks.com
‘We Are All Good People Here’
by Susan Rebecca White
Simon & Schuster
304 pages, $27
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