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Bright Angel Time

Bright Angel Time

by Martha McPhee

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Set in the early 1970s, this magical first novel by National Book Award finalist Martha McPhee marked not only the introduction of the Furey-Cooper family of Gorgeous Lies, but also the auspicious debut of a stunning literary talent.
Meet eight-year-old Kate and her sisters as they take to a life on the road when their divorced mother falls in love with


Set in the early 1970s, this magical first novel by National Book Award finalist Martha McPhee marked not only the introduction of the Furey-Cooper family of Gorgeous Lies, but also the auspicious debut of a stunning literary talent.
Meet eight-year-old Kate and her sisters as they take to a life on the road when their divorced mother falls in love with someone new. This strange freedom introduces the girls to a way of life that is vastly different from the one they knew with their geologist father. But, far from him, adult distraction and carelessness finally threaten to explode and ruin Kate's life. Rich in character, imagery, and humor, Bright Angel Time is a brilliant and moving novel from an authentic, critically acclaimed new voice.

Editorial Reviews


"Full of beautiful writing and dead-on observations about the era that spawned broken families and broken hearts."
Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Told with great verve and poetic sweep, a wise, pointed, utterly absorbing childhood narrative--honest, and above all, original."

"In this well-rendered tale of misplaced dreams and forgotten realities, McPhee's prose is delicate and lovely as an angel's wing."

"Funny and acerbic. Melds The Bobbsey Twins with On the Road."

"If you're looking for a fresh voice, try Martha McPhee's first novel . . . Whip-smart."
Author of A LAKE IN THE WOODS - Tim O'Brien

"Sometimes funny, sometimes harrowing… [it] quietly and gracefully finds a resting place in the reader's heart."
Author of HOW TO READ A POEM - Edward Hirsch

"Martha McPhee writes with the shimmering solidity of rock. [A] strikingly effective and richly textured debut volume."
US Magazine
"In this well-rendered tale of misplaced dreams and forgotten realities, McPhee's prose is delicate and lovely as an angel's wing."
From the Publisher

"To get a sense of what Martha McPhee's affecting first novel is like, imagine Rabbit Run or Revolutionary Road written from the point of view of an 8-year-old child." - -Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"Gorgeous . . . In this well-rendered tale of misplaced dreams and forgotten realities, McPhee's prose is as delicate and lovely as an angel's wing."-US


"An original, peculiarly American story. McPhee writes with assurance. Her story flows smoothly, and she dissects her characters kindly."
Sam Sifton
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 children.

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

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
When portions of this first novel recently appeared in The New Yorker, they drew attention for their plangent, affecting voice and powerful writing. These features remain striking in McPhee's impressive debut, especially her vivid, almost tactile sense of setting. The story, too, is absorbing: eight-year-old Kate (who narrates, looking back) is on a magical mystery tour of the American West with her mother, Eve, her two older sisters, her mother's boyfriend, Anton, and his four children in a turquoise camper in the summer of 1970. Anton--itinerant Gestalt therapist, former professional gambler and guru manque--encourages everyone to free themselves from the shackles of convention, letting the kids run wild and experiment with drugs as they tour the spectacular desert landscapes and national monuments. Kate enjoys some of the trip's more touristy aspects, especially a long-awaited trip to the Grand Canyon, where she sees the Bright Angel shale, whose name has long fascinated her. But she dreams of her former New Jersey home and her absent father, a geologist, who left the family to live with another woman. McPhee deftly renders the dynamic among the three sisters, the interplay of rivalry and trust, as well as their varying degrees of infatuation with the grandiose Anton. Eventually, however, the action, though always vividly described, loses psychological ballast. Eve comes to seem appallingly foolish. She sticks around even though Anton--who gives Esalen seminars on "Romantic Love and Sexual Equality"--punches her in the face. Throughout the novel, McPhee maintains a tone of restrained scandal, pointing to moral judgment through indirection. Though she executes this technique with great skill, some readers may find it too subtle by half.
Library Journal
This debut novel (by the daughter of writer John McPhee) centers on the ordered world of eight-year-old Kate, where every trip has an itinerary and even the underwear is ironed. When Kate's father abandons the family, her mother begins a relationship with Anton, a free spirit. Kate is disturbed by her new "hippie" lifestyle, and McPhee cleverly hints at deeper tensions running beneath the surface of daily life. Anton leads his new, extended family on an endless, meandering journey that at times seems to affect the momentum of the novel. While Kate ultimately accepts her new relationships, the novel ends abruptly, leaving several matters unresolved. Still, boomers will enjoy the images of the late Sixties and early Seventies, and all readers will find Kate an engaging character. -- Caroline M. Hallsworth, Cambrian College, Ontario
School Library Journal
The world, according to eight-year-old Kate, is coming apart. Her father has left and her mother is distraught and angry. Kate narrates this tale of a journey she takes in 1970, the first leg of which is with her mother and two older sisters cross country to the West Coast. There her mother joins Anton, an itinerant therapist she had fallen for earlier, literally, while doing the "trust" exercise of falling backwards into waiting arms. Kate's pilgrimage continues as they travel with Anton and his children through the Southwest in a camper. The girl's life, once rock solid, becomes airy and chaotic, with glimpses of sex and drugs, friendship and passion. Kate clings to durable scraps of her life-road maps, a rock with gold her geologist father gave her, and the names of the geologic formations he loved to say, such as Bright Angel Shale. McPhee's flowing first novel, rich with the emotions of loss and love, captures the feelings of childhood. The author writes with humor, compassion, and a strong sense of location and the effects of dislocation. Kate is a sometimes charming, sometimes tragic, but never sentimental child. Her observations are sharp and true whether her eye is turned to the reckless, floundering adults or the shimmering heat and beauty of the desert. In the novel's pivotal scene, which takes place in the Grand Canyon, Kate comes to realize that she is more resilient than she thought. She knows that she will endure. -- Susanne Bardelson, Wheat Ridge Public Library, Jefferson County, Colorado
Michiko Kakutani
Blessed with a poet's ear for language and a reporter's eye for detail, she proves with this volume that she is also a gifted novelist, a writer with the ability to surprise and move us.
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
Kirkus Reviews
Yet another coming-of-age debut novel, this one dragging on a bit as it evokes the '60s-style wanderings of a divorced housewife and her three unhappy daughters. Until 1969, eight-year-old Kate lived in perfect contentment in a white house in rural New Jersey with her two older sisters, her geologist father, and her beautiful blond mother, a housewife named Eve. Unfortunately, that was the year that Dad elected to run off with his lover, and Eve, after a depression that kept her in bed for months, fell in love with an itinerant Gestalt therapist named Anton and allowed him to uproot their lives. Yearning to experience life truly in a way her husband never had, Eve follows Anton to the Esalen center in California. The couple gather up Eve's three well-brought-up daughters, put them in a camper with Anton's five hippie kids, and take off for a tour of the American West. The new, extended family wanders aimlessly through deserts and semi-abandoned towns, sneaking into unoccupied motel rooms for showers, dropping in on Indian settlements and millionaires' resorts, and absorbing various hitchhikers into their fold, while the children bicker and the adults preach free love along the way. Meanwhile, Kate tries to accustom herself to the loss of her father and happy former life, working hard (but often failing) to see the good in Anton's motherless children and to forgive her own newly liberated mom. Eve's reckless devotion to Anton has its consequences—one daughter becomes deathly ill, another runs away, and Kate herself becomes a religious fanatic for a while—and yet Eve's decision to return home at last seems motivated more by fatigue than by lessons learned, and it's unclear who,if anyone, has really come of age. McPhee's story holds interest, but much like its protagonists, it tends to wander without direction, in the end failing to provide much of a catharsis.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Harvest Edition
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

Meet the Author

Martha McPhee is the author of Gorgeous Lies, a finalist for the National Book Award, and coauthor with Jenny and Laura McPhee of Girls. She teaches at Hofstra University and lives in New York City.

Brief Biography

New York, New York
Date of Birth:
June 25, 1964
Place of Birth:
New York, New York
B.A., Bowdoin College, 1987; M.F.A., Columbia University, 1994

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