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