Monday, April 27, 2009

The Laws Of Harmony by Judith Ryan Hendricks

Hendricks begins her novel with a wonderful if somewhat enigmatic quote from Collette: “It is the image in the mind that binds us to our lost treasures, but it is the loss that shapes the image.” Now all we have to discover is what has been lost, and how that loss has shaped the image.

There have been a number of very well written novels on the perils of growing up as flower children in the 60s and 70s. Many of us who were already grown tend to remember the courageous and in many ways successful student movements, the birth of the Black Power movement and the sense of empowerment of young people in this country and around the world. All too often, I think we turn a blind eye to the difficulties for many of the children who grew up in both urban and rural communes. One book that comes immediately to mind is Joelle Frazier’s excellent little autobiographical novel, The Territory of Men, in which she describes just how harrowing it could be for a young child hovering on the fringes of all night or all weekend parties at homes that were not your own—drugs and so-called free love just through the curtain, in the next room. Unlike Frazier, Hendricks is not moved from home to home, town to town, still she describes well how even the relative stability of an established commune provided too little protection and guidance for the children.
I was born at sunrise on June 3, 1971, on a commune near Taos, New Mexico. Delivery was accomplished with the help of a midwife as my mother squatted, panting, on her mattress, surrounded by her commune sisters, panting in sympathy, cheering her on. 
The men had hovered in the kitchen all night, playing cards and drinking, smoking, drifting in and out of the birth room unnoticed, like ghosts.
The girl’s mother, Gwen, remained on the commune long after almost all others, including husband, son, and daughter had left, convinced that what she gave her children was a better life and better values than they could possibly have had in a more conventional household. She names her girl child Soleil, but even the name (which the girl quite promptly changes to Sunny once she realizes that neither her teachers nor her classmates will ever say it right) seems to her to be a curse rather than a blessing.

In fact, this novel is the story of  Sunny’s bitterness concerning how she was raised and of her flight from her mother and all that her mother embraced. But in telling the story, Hendriks adds a layer of mystery to Sunny’s life via her handsome partner, almost husband, who wheels and deals in the world of venture capital. He starts small businesses, or seems to, only to sell them quickly and move to another such venture.  Questions from Sunny about his business ventures are quickly turned aside; sometimes there is a lot of money, sometimes none. Quite aside from the secretiveness and mystery of his business concerns, almost from the start, the relationship is compromised by too little communication and the boyfriend’s apparent total conflation of touch, even comforting touch, with sex. And then quite suddenly he is simply gone, presumed dead, and there are lots of angry men looking for him. One after another, these men confront Sunny, convinced that she must know more about her boyfriend’s shady deals than she is letting on. Sunny decides to uproot, run, disappear, in one fell swoop leave behind her mother and that hippy commune past as well as the precarious and seemingly dangerous present.

And what a move, what a change—from the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas to the islands off the coast of Washington and a little town called Harmony, which, ironically, is also the name of the commune on which she was raised. Working in a restaurant and surrounded by women who have, due to their own pasts and soured relationships, escaped to this island existence, Sunny is essentially reborn. The attention and care that she receives from this group of women is so genuine and warm, so unlike the confused and selfish attention she is used to from men. One reviewer quoted on the book-cover says that Hendricks “calls to mind Barbara Kingsolver in her affinity for wise women and the power of close female friendships.”  And while I would not compare Hendricks social and environmental insights with those of Kingsolver, she does write very well about relationships between women.

Eventually and painstakingly, these women coax Sunny out of her shell of secretiveness, and as they gain her trust, they also gently and gradually persuade her to attempt some reconciliation with her mother. What men, her boyfriend in particular, could not do with sex, the women seem to accomplish via cooking. In fact the theme of cooking and baking weaves through this story; as Sunny says, “I believe in baking the way some people believe in God. It’s usually what I turn to on those days when the very thought of reality is enough to send me diving back under the covers.” Baking is also the thread that leads her back to her mother, helping her to recall the good things she has inherited from Gwen, despite what she sees as the disorder and chaos of life on the commune.

In the end, at least for me, the mystery that is supposed to lead the reader along, keep the pages turning, is heavier than the actual plot will bear. And the final resolution is neither quite convincing nor sufficient to justify the ominous tone set early in the novel. Add to this that the book is a hundred pages or so longer than it needs to be, and the net result is a satisfying but less than profound read. Hendricks has written other novels (also, it seems, with cooking as a major theme), and this book was good enough to make me want to at least start the others. She does have a talent for describing the restorative nature that relationships between women can have, and she does a good job of calling into question all overly rosy views of what commune life was like for the children raised on them. And if not profound, the novel is entertaining and easy to read.

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