Sunday, February 14, 2016

Book Review: Savannah

(Reclaimed from Blogjob, where it appeared without tags.)
Title: Savannah
Author: Eugenia Price
Date: 1983
Publisher: Doubleday / Fleming H. Revell
ISBN: none
Length: 590 pages plus 5 pages historical notes
Quote: “Are you too good to be true?”
Well, actually, yes...Mark Browning, the hero of this historical novel, is fiction. He doesn’t consider himself too good to be true. He represents the author’s ideal of a forgiving nature. Mark is, however, too nice to move in conflict to any other character for very long, so Price has an interesting time setting him up in contrast to some unforgiving people who become his in-laws. The social and emotional conflict between forgiveness and unforgiveness, as lifestyle practices, keep the plot moving after the romance has been resolved.
Price’s attempt to dramatize one version of Christian doctrine on forgiveness makes this novel interesting, rather than impossible, for me to review. For Price, it seems to have been axiomatic that it would be better for a 25-year-old man to marry a 25-year-old woman than to marry a 40-year-old woman. Price was writing as a mature woman, and as another mature woman I will say that this is the way most of us feel about most of our younger admirers. But not all of us, all the time. Some women do marry younger men. I’d rather see than be one of them, but I’d much rather read about one of them than read about a man who marries his first cousin, which is what Price forces her character to do.
Price’s version of forgiveness is almost equally controversial. It is not, in the strictest sense, the Christian version of forgiveness, although it has been adopted by sincere Christians. Christian forgiveness is a process that begins with repentance. Christian teaching is that God wants to forgive people, but even God can’t really forgive people until they repent. While people continue in their sins, what God can do might be described as releasing them. They are free either to repent or to go on sinning. They can enjoy the fellowship in which God would prefer to live with them only when they repent.
In contrast to Mark we see Ethel Cameron, an old Christian lady who believes that vengeance belongs to God and who can hardly bear to wait for God to pour it out on the people she refuses to forgive. There are Christians like that. I think most of us have known a few. It might be pleasant to believe that holding grudges is the thing that makes them unpleasant to know. Closer examination of the senior population shows that the case is not so simple. Ethel is a Type A, due for a fatal stroke a few years after menopause. If she’d practiced relaxation, meditation, Buddhist-type automatic “forgiveness,” sensory awareness, aerobic exercise, and a vegetarian diet, a woman like Ethel might postpone the stroke for another ten years. What it would take to give Ethel a cheerful old age, whether as a genuinely loving grandmother or as an evil sadistic one, might be different genes.
The only character in this book who has an opportunity to model the practice of Christian forgiveness, or might have had if Price had put more thought into the construction of the novel, is Caroline. Although she’s also young, energetic, healthy, rich, and devoted to her children, Caroline has been emotionally abused by some of the other characters, including Ethel. It would be hard to get Ethel to repent of her sin against Caroline, but if Price had managed it, she might have made Caroline a model of authentic Christian forgiveness. She doesn’t try. Caroline tries to practice release, confusing it with real forgiveness, as Mark does, in order not to be like Ethel. The result is a believable young church lady...not heroic, but perfectly believable in her confusion and emotionality.

Along with these fictional characters, Price gives us a healthy dose of authentic Savannah history and a few imagined portraits of the real people who made the city great. Readers get to watch the proto-yuppie, Julia Scarbrough, bankrupting her husband and being mortified that she can’t be at home while the rest of the family entertain the President, and “hear” the shrewd advice of Sheftall Sheftall, and tour several of the city’s historic places as history suggests that they were at the time. In real life Julia Scarbrough never had an opportunity to blurt out Mark’s shameful secret, any more than Sheftall Sheftall had an opportunity to give Mark sound business advice or Robert Mackay had an opportunity to adopt him, because Mark hadn’t been imagined during their lifetimes, but Price found it easy to believe and to convince us that that’s the way they behaved toward real people.
However, at this period Savannah was not as full of profuse letter writers as it later became. The sequel Price promises readers (in which Mark and Caroline will appear briefly as beloved elders) was written almost entirely from history; most of its characters are real. Savannah incorporates as much history as Price was able to work into it but most of the book is fiction.
If you like historical romances, here’s a grand sweeping one, with no explicit sex but lots of love scenes. (Price didn’t think love ended with marriage; she shows us a middle-aged couple who are still “in love” in the first half of the book, and, toward the end, a young couple with a baby who are still “in love.”) The spiritual theme is shallowly treated, but the family story should satisfy those who enjoy the kind of novels Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, or, well, Eugenia Price wrote.