Thursday, July 5, 2012

"Preacher's Lake," by Lisa Vice

“Preacher’s Lake” (Dutton, 1998), by Lisa Vice (author of “Reckless Driver,” which I posted about on 6/15/12), is a challenging novel to read: it is long, it has a large cast of characters, and its characters live in difficult circumstances. Yet despite these challenges, or perhaps partly because of them, this is a book that catches up the reader -- at least this reader -- and doesn’t let her go. The first challenge is the 472-page length. OK, it’s long, but I can handle that. The second challenge is the many characters, introduced in rapid succession, in short vignettes, making me wonder if I can keep all the characters straight in my mind. The novel continues to move quickly among the characters, and then gradually some of them start to meet and interact with others; gradually I figure out who everyone is and how they connect with each other. Several of the main characters are lesbians. Probably the biggest challenge for a middle-class reader is to acclimate to the rather isolated and hardscrabble Maine setting where almost all the characters are poor, just barely working class, or just getting by. Some live without electricity or running water or indoor bathrooms. Life is a struggle. Besides the economic issues, there are social issues, issues of class. Typical readers of contemporary fiction do not often encounter this kind of setting and these kinds of characters, especially in the United States. This novel does something important by forcing readers to see poverty and struggling characters up close. Although I am not personally familiar with the area or with people in these circumstances, I am convinced that the portrayals in this novel are authentic. (The author herself lived in Maine at one point.) But the characters are not defined only by their economic and social conditions; they are vibrant, thoughtful, quirky, caring people as well. They worry about their children, fall in love, sometimes settle for partners for practical reasons, yearn for better lives, wish for partners and children, try to improve their lots, and move in and out of the area; in other words, although the setting is different, the human feelings are the same ones that characters in other novels experience in wealthier urban areas.

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