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