Kim Barnes is a genius. I got so swept away in the company of her ruthless, ruthful, grasping men that for the space of 314 pages I was Virginia Mae (Gin) McPhee. Thanks to Barnes's masterly personification, Gin breaks the bonds of the mere mundane fictional heroine - cuts the marionette strings as it were - and blooms into an irrepressible everywoman.
I apologize if I mix metaphors. Especially because my prose can do so little justice to Barnes's elegant hand. But trust me. You won't regret reading this book. Even though you may think you know the tale. And I'm almost certain that you know someone just like Gin. If you have seen the AMC television series Mad Men, if you have read the news, and if you are familiar with the Old Testament, you know Gin's story. It begins both with and in (metaphorically speaking) the Bible. Indeed, her Holy Roller grandfather nails Gin to a biblical cross from the start; shortly after going to live with the crusty old preacher - from whom her late grandmother had long ago escaped - "I learned that I was the daughter of Eve, a danger to myself, a temptation to those around me."
Whether her gramps was a blathering, sanctimonious fool or was damning her to a self-fulfilling prophecy, I will let you decide. But in her grandfather's home and at his Sunday tent meetings, Gin's rebelliousness steeps under the roiling pressure of such strict religious zealotry that she is not even permitted to play on the girls' high school basketball team or wear the capri pants so popular in the mid-1960s. She is forced to hide library books from the old man who disdains educating women. Little wonder that she escapes via a shotgun marriage to Mason McPhee, her high school crush. Then they both escape via his dream of a job with the oil company ARAMCO to an American compound in Saudi Arabia. Yes. It's a compound. It is embedded deep in the very greenhouse that spawned the stories in the Bible, the tale of Eve daring to eat from the tree of knowledge.
The images, the metaphors culled from ancient and modern fables, drift across the pages as Gin learns, then balks, and finally rebels at the rules that would constrain her. Rules that she sees as arbitrary and stacked against her. Rules ginned up by men, paranoid over their tenuous grip on power. And it isn't long before even Mason finds himself in a kingdom of company men who will resort to any means to maintain their slippery grasp on dominion.
Oh boy. Just reviewing passages as I write this review makes me want to go back and re-read the whole book and luxuriate in all the wonderful allusions to stories that men have told since the beginning of time. I love this job.
This review was originally published in June 2012, and has been updated for the February 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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