Susan Rebecca White’s debut novel, “Bound South” (2009) was a penetrating, wickedly funny look at the haves and the have-nots. In “A Soft Place to Land,” she levels the playing field with a thought-provoking princess-and-the-pauper scenario: Two sisters who grow up in luxury are separated by fate.
As the story opens, Ruthie Harrison and Julia Smith, her half-sister have just lost their parents in a plane crash. Gone, too, is the life they’ve taken for granted would always be there: The palatial house in Buckhead; the expensive, exclusive prep school they attend, loving and open-minded parents.
At first, the affectionate sibling rivalry between Ruthie, 13, and Julia, 17, gives way to a new closeness—Ruthie sleeps in Julia’s bed at night and Julia includes Ruthie in her social activities—but this doesn’t last. The terms of their parents’ will send Julia to rejoin her natural father in Virginia and Ruthie to live with her father’s sister in San Francisco.
Cautious, insecure, conservative Ruthie gets the better deal: Doting guardians, a posh, bohemian home and another private school. Wild, worldly, aspiring writer Julia lands in a middle-class household and public school in a podunk town under the disapproving eye of a stepmother who punishes Julia’s rebellious behavior by forbidding visits to Ruthie for almost a year after the split-up.
Though the sisters write to each other, a chasm opens. When Julia is finally allowed to go to San Francisco, Ruthie finds her once- cool older sister drastically out of step: “Ruthie knew she was being shallow, but Julia’s tie-dye made her cringe. Teenagers didn’t wear tie-dye in San Francisco anymore.” It’s not just Julia’s clothes, though. It’s everything from the way Julia wants to spend their first day together to the way she puts on makeup to her request that their uncle look at some of her stories. Julia teases Ruthie about her good fortune, comparing their lots, making her feel guilty. “Sometimes Ruthie hated her sister”—and this is one of those times.
One thing leads to another, until Ruthie lashes out so shockingly that Julia runs away. Her punishment this time will separate the girls all over again, leaving Julia further scarred and Ruthie still longing for the closeness they once shared.
Though Julia appears periodically in letters and in an excerpt from a memoir she will later write, the novel, which spans 16 years, is told from Ruthie’s perspective. An endearing goof when we meet her (Julia’s nickname for her is “spaz”), Ruthie never quite loses her prim-and-proper attitude even as she comes of age in San Francisco against a backdrop of cafes, restaurants, and later, in her mid-20s, returns to Atlanta. She’s a better judge of food than of her own emotions, a snob who can’t help but notice the difference between her fiance’s childhood home and the one in which she grew up. She yearns for her sister with all the intensity of the 13-year-old she once was, but helplessly drives her away each time Julia sets foot in her life.
In her first book, White slyly exposed bigotry and classism by letting her characters speak for themselves. Here, too, she presents Ruthie warts-and-all—vulnerable, petty, inexplicably hot and cold toward Julia—her roller-coaster emotions sometimes infuriating, at other times all too human. However, “A Soft Place to Land” forgoes comic relief in favor of a more complex and layered portrait of a young woman who, despite being “blessed again and again with love and opportunity,” finds that it’s not enough.
The answer lies with Julia—imperfect, less fortunate, living “near the edge”—whom Ruthie keeps losing, unable to find a way to hold on. How she reconnects with her sister and discovers, as Julia once said, “that no one makes it through life without getting a little stained,” is what this heartfelt story is all about: Sometimes it takes a few hard falls before you find the right place to land.
"A Soft Place to Land"
By Susan Rebecca White
Touchstone, 352 pages, $14.99
White will read from "A Soft Place to Land" beginning at 7:30 p.m. May 19. Outwrite Books, 991 Piedmont Ave., Atlanta. 404-607-0082, www.outwritebooks.com