The author's surname
is McPhee. Flip the book over and check out
the dust jacket photograph of her: classic
intelligent-babe pose, lips pursed and glossy,
hair long and silken. John McPhee's daughter?
Oh, Christ, one thinks at first, at least Martin
Amis had the good sense to have bad teeth.
Because for every nepotistic bit of recognition
afforded to Martha McPhee on the occasion
of her debut novel (which is actually quite
good), there will be an equal number of
unkind shots from the petit literoisie.
McPhee's a legacy child on the ivy-trimmed
campus of New York publishing (Dad's an
institution at the New Yorker, with myriad
books published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux);
it's impossible, standing in the metaphorical
quad, to look at her novel and not think she
has a lot to prove.
But in spite of any initial impulse to sneer, I
found Bright Angel Time a carefully
wrought and intelligent novel -- and a
pre-adolescent, feminine road novel at that.
McPhee somehow manages to align familial
dysfunctionality and love against a
background of ridiculous early-'70s
utopianism. That's difficult work for anyone,
and to her credit McPhee pulls it off.
It's 1970, and the narrator is an 8-year-old girl
with two sisters, 10 and 12. Mom has a
therapist, Anton. Dad left a few months ago.
Mom's in love with Anton. The future holds a
new life in store for all of them: on the road in
Anton's turquoise camper, his kids in tow, just
driving around. "In 1970," McPhee writes,
"you could do that."
And we're off: poker, drugs and whiskey;
sensitivity training and Esalen; freedom and
love and jealousy; religion and the geological
history of the American Southwest; crimes
and hatreds and deception and lust; the
abandonment of family life in favor of family
lifestyle -- all experienced through the eyes of
a funny, intelligent and spiritual child. Bright
Angel Time tells the story of a middle-class
family in disarray, cut low by divorce and
ersatz counterculturalism, and describes with
painful, loving detail how the sins of the
grownups can be bitterly visited upon the
It's the dark side of the Me Generation
revealed, richly textured for those readers who
grew up with it and, one would imagine,
deeply wounding for those who brought it to
bear. There's redemption at the end, of
course, and McPhee allows it with refined
grace: promise in the air, parents coming to
the rescue, doing as they should. But that's
the only downside; everything else rings true. -- Salon