Quiet Survival For a Century

ROXANNA SLADE

By Reynolds Price

Scribner

301 pp., $25

Reynolds Price has again mastered writing in a woman's voice, as he did in his acclaimed novel "Kate Vaiden" in 1986. But narrative skill isn't always enough to make a successful novel.

"Roxanna Slade" is the fictional memoir of a white Southern woman in her 10th decade. It's a slow, at times tedious story, told with the honesty of a mature woman recalling the thoughts and events that shaped her life.

Born in North Carolina in 1900, Roxanna begins her story on the fateful day of her 20th birthday. She and her brother Ferny sneak off in their parents' Model T, heading for a picnic at his friend Larkin Slade's house. It's love at first sight for Roxanna and Larkin, and the couple spend a blissful afternoon flirting.

But tragedy grinds the day to a halt. While Larkin, Ferny, and Larkin's older brother, Palmer, are swimming and showing off in the creek, Larkin disappears. His drowned body is found the next day.

Roxanna and Palmer marry soon after, but neither of them will forget that it was Larkin she had wanted, and old Mrs. Slade never will forget it was Roxanna who caused the horrible picnic in the first place.

These psychological battles wage on throughout the book, leaving little room for peace or forgiveness. Because Roxanna's life is, as she calls it, so "uneventful," that tragic loss shapes the rest of the story. This is unfortunate for readers. Though it may not be fair to judge the narrator as being too acquiescent, too self-pitying, and too ineffective, the fact remains that her story is not that interesting.

All of this may be Price's point. Here's a woman just like thousands of other women, born early enough to witness the forces that shaped modern America - two World Wars, the automobile, a consumer culture - but too early for them to impact her life.

In Price's rural South, little has changed since the Civil War. Men work, and women take care of home and family (with the help of paid black servants). Her husband calls Roxanna a "saint," which she discredits as simply meaning "a person who never blocks your path but grins and yields all paths to your will." Roxanna, struggling with melancholy and depression, can't seek solace in religion because she feels God has cursed her.

Still, she survives nearly a full century. She buries her family and spouse and raises two children. At the end of her life, she faces up to a fact she had suspected for years and takes an uncharacteristically bold step without consulting her heirs. "I felt I'd shucked off a burden that had been on my back for seventy-one years," she writes. "It felt truly splendid to do one more thing that had some weight before I depart."

Price is a fine writer. He evokes scenes and times effortlessly, conversations flow naturally, and characters seem realistic. But this book isn't his best. The beginning moves too slowly; the first 60 pages give a minute-by-minute rendering of that tragic week. The ending is the best part of the book, but it seems that with a little more polish, the rest of the novel could have shone with the eloquence befitting both author and dear Roxanna herself.

* Elizabeth A. Brown writes from Hillsborough, N.C.

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