Friday, April 25, 2008

Pearl, by Tabitha King

(hb; 1988)

From the inside flap:

"Pearl Dickenson has come to Nodd's Ridge to claim an inheritance from a relative she never knew. Unexpectedly, she elects to stay, unknowingly upsetting the town's equilibrium. She acquires a local diner and makes it a fixture of the town, through wonderful cooking and prodigious hard work. But the simple desire to have a home and a place of her own becomes complicated, to the entertainment of her decidedly interested neighbors, when she stumbles into not one, but two love affairs with two very different but equally troubled men -- Reuben Styles, a local man fighting to hold onto his rebellious teenage daughter in the aftermath of the break-up of his marriage, and wealthy summer resident David Christopher, brilliant and unstable, drawn back to the town where his childhood was shattered by the murder of his sister. Pearl's attempts to rescue Reuben's daughter, Karen, from an involvement with an abusive man triggers a series of revelations, not least Pearl's own awareness that she has let her confused heart lead her into a potentially disastrous conflict. When the seething rivalry between the two men explodes into violence, continuing a deep-rooted feud that threatens the very fabric of everyday life, Pearl realizes that only she has the power to heal -- or destroy -- the community... and to save -- or destroy -- herself."


The events in Pearl happen almost immediately after Joe Nevers's death in Caretakers. Pearl, a grand-niece of Joe's, inherits his house indirectly through her grandmother/Joe's sister, Gussie; she quickly buys a centralized, local, run-down diner from Roscoe Needham, an old kind-hearted drunk with a mean temper, and in doing so, completely reconfigures the lives of the local people.

Her arrival hits David Christopher, thirty-year old wealthy poet son of Victoria "Torie" Christopher (who had affairs with Joe, recounted in Caretakers, and Reuben Styles, recounted in Caretakers and Pearl's sequel/overlap novel, The Book of Reuben) and Reuben the hardest, it seems -- through a flukish fate-twist, she finds herself involved with both men, and in a small town already seething with pre-existing dramas, it threatens to take the town to its breaking point.

Pearl, like King's later Nodd's Ridge novels, The Book of Reuben and One on One, immediately gripped me, without any hitches (it's more assured than Caretakers, which sported middle-section plot lags). I had to keep reading this book, just to see what happened next -- it's a pot-boiler, but it's a classy, well-written one.

The book flap blurb plays up the tensions between Reuben and David (who's still haunted by the shooting death of his little sister, India, at a nearby lake, also witnessed by his traumatized mother, Reuben and Joe, who was India's real -- secret -- father). But this play-up is a bullsh*t publishing ploy, as David and Reuben are close friends, practically family; there are a few clashes, but nothing to warrant the hyperbolized nature of their relationship.

Another nit I had was with King's emotionally-manipulative, dirty-trick-ending, which laid to rest a number of Pearl's storylines and issues (some of them reaching one book back to Caretakers). It was effective, to be sure, but it felt like a cheap thing to do, after all the excellent, honest writing that came before it -- I expected this kind of bullsh*t finish from a hack writer, not a wordsmith of King's caliber. (In this it reminded, in a different way, of the tone-jarring ending in King's Survivor.)

These two nits -- one of them a publishing thing, not a novel-centric thing -- are minor, though, compared to the mostly-superb plot and characters that King has given the world in Pearl.

Check it out, after reading Caretakers. Pearl, superior to Caretakers in its execution, works as a stand-alone novel, but its characters and events mean more, given the familiarity that Caretakers readers may have with the subject matter.

[[Side-note: two notable characters appear in Pearl. One of them is Olivia ("Liv") Russell, the central character in an earlier Nodd's Ridge novel, The Trap.

[[The other character is from a novel by King's husband, Stephen (yes, that Stephen King). Dick Halloran, the Negro chef who got killed by an axe-wielding Jack Torrance in The Shining, is a close family friend of Pearl's: Halloran "ran [Pearl's step-father's Key West] diner in the winter, [and] used to work summers in a resort in Colorado [aka, the Overlook Hotel, in The Shining]" There's also a mention of Cujo, as well with a rabid-dog-on-the-loose subplot in Pearl, but that's nothing new -- Tabitha King also references Cujo, in a more playful way, in Survivor.]]

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