February 2006

Emily Grosvenor

fiction

The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons

Author Kaye Gibbons made a strong debut in 1986 with her first novel Ellen Foster, a story about a plucky, wise-beyond-her-years 11-year old foster child trying to find her place in the world. Almost two decades since, an Oprah's Book Club pick and a film adaptation later, the character Ellen Foster has taken on a life of her own -- and is no less closer to her original goal. Unfortunately, readers who fell in love with the little girl who used to fantasize about killing her daddy will be disappointed by a follow-up novel that is predictable, saccharine, and far less dark than the first.

But don't take my word for it -- listen to Ms. Gibbons herself. I met her at a recent reading of her current book tour, where she spoke briefly about the bad reviews this second installment has gotten. "Of course it's contrived," she said, "I've got three girls at home -- you try to do any better." That must be where her characters get their honesty.

The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster picks up a few years after Ellen finally finds a permanent foster home. This time around, Ellen, now 15, isn't longing for home and a family where she belongs, she's on to bigger things: a Harvard education. In a letter to the President of Harvard that is perhaps a shade too cute, she lays out her case: that of a hardworking, intelligent teenager who has taken more than her share of childhood adversity in stride. She ends the letter with her own personal motto: "I believe that anything is possible if you have the combination of love for what you're doing and the will to sit down and not get up until it's done." And then she waits for the response.

In the meantime, Ellen goes on to spurn a best friend who wants to marry her. She feels sorry for a slow-witted friend who's gotten herself pregnant. She tousles with the local bureaucracy. She has her talents recognized. She embarks on something of an odyssey on her way to a summer writing camp for the gifted. She is judged by her southern accent. It's sad to want to impose a little more heartache on a character that has certainly seen too much, especially a young woman who works so hard, but if Ellen doesn't suffer, what's the point?

So the true gift of this latest Gibbons novel -- as with all of her first-person narratives -- is her channeling of voice. It is a language so consistent throughout the book one could think it was Gibbons herself, and it draws us closer to a character who is gradually realizing that her type of self-learned intelligence doesn't quite fit with the crowd. At one point, Ellen writes: ""It didn't matter if a thousand scholars studied how Madame Bovary probably wouldn't have had to rot from the inside if she'd read better books in her girlhood, if the idea strikes you in Baltimore in a room full of people who say they already know, my theory is it's still your personal view." Indeed.

But where Ellen Foster introduced a young girl whose inner dialogue was marked by its oddball syntax and precociousness, the Ellen of The Life All Around Me is a bit of a rambler. For someone who wants to be poet in addition to a doctor, one might have hoped that she would practice a bit more economy of words.

Gibbons is planning to continue with her saga of one, having said she wants to "grow a character up -- you know, like Clinton used to use the word 'grow'." Even so, there it is at the end of The Life All Around Me, a plot all tied up with a bow so generic you could've bought at Wal-Mart. No bother. People who have come to care about Ellen will care about this book -- and the many to come as Gibbons "grows" her up. But let's hope the third time's just a little less charming.

The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons
Harcourt
ISBN: 0151012040
224 Pages