The New York Times
The Life All Around Me by Ellen Fosterby Kaye Gibbons
In this sequel to Gibbons's beloved classic Ellen Foster, Ellen, now fifteen, is settled into a permanent home with a new mother. Strengthened by adversity and blessed with enough intelligence to design a salvation for herself, she still feels ill at ease. But while she holds fast to the shreds of her childhood--humoring her best friend, Stuart, who is determined to marry her; and protecting her old neighbor, slow-witted Starletta--she begins to negotiate her way into a larger world. With a singular mix of perspicacity, naïveté, and compassion, Ellen draws us into her life and makes us fall in love with her all over again.
The New York Times
"The novel's method of telling, in which Ellen herself is the story's landscape, is also its signal strength. As [Ellen] uses her considerable resources to move toward understanding--and to react, equally, to old losses and sudden good fortune--we're right there with her."
"Ellen’s character and voice are the masterful writing of a strong spirit."
"Ellen maintains a hold on us, especially when she remembers to laugh at herself, and certainly at the novel's end, when she discovers psychiatric reports about her mother's last year. These pages, though perhaps the most sensational of her story, achieve a power accumulated over the course of two novels, through all of Ellen's suffering and longing for the severed maternal bond."
"Most stunning about the Ellen Foster series is Gibbons' conversational language, a stream-of-'70s-consciousness.... Gibbons' deft juggling of such disparate elements is the reading equivalent of a really posh bed-in-a-bag ensemble -- which, as Gibbons points out, is something Ellen would love."
PRAISE FOR ELLEN FOSTER
"Ellen Foster is a southern Holden Caulfield, tougher, perhaps, as funny . . . a breathtaking novel."- Walker Percy
"Some people might give up their second-born to write as well as Kaye Gibbons."--Time
"Filled with lively humor, compassion and integrity . . . Ellen Foster may be the most trustworthy character in fiction."--The New York Times Book Review
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The Life All Around Me By Ellen Foster
By Gibbons, Kaye
HarcourtCopyright © 2005 Gibbons, Kaye
All right reserved.
A NYONE CONSIDERING MAKING AN UNDERAGE change in life, such as who you're going to live with, should know there's no way to avoid the government getting in on the decision, so try to be kind to the lady they'll send with a stack of tests and try to stay calm and do your best on them. I moved in here three years ago on Christmas Day of 1971, knowing as I knocked on the door that I was choosing this particular replacement for life with my mother because the foster mother, Laura, had the kind of home you'd be out of your mind not to settle into for good.
My family was either dead or crazy, so there wasn't the fall-back of concerned loved ones. In fact, my mother's sister, Nadine, who looks sane in public, had created a no-room-at-the-inn situation during her and her daughter Dora's festivities that caused me to strike out walking for Laura's house.
The next summer Laura notified the government that all was well and they could go ahead and draw up her parental rights paperwork. Lo and behold a letter arrived to say Social Service was fine with our arrangement as long as I could pass the mental stability tests meant to prove whether I was too much of a damaged goods personality to live with a nice individual permanently or if I needed to be demoted into a more routine nightmare orphan home.
When Laura noticed me at the kitchen table with the letter and a resuscitated nail-biting habit, she said, You can't prepare for tests like these, Ellen, and when I called to say it's been nothing but a joy having you here, and I think I'd know by now if I needed to be sleeping with my eyes open because you were across the hall plotting waking nightmares, the woman said the tests were mandatory but they're a formality. There's nothing to worry about unless you chew your fingers so far down you can't write the answers.
She took me in for the tests the following Saturday morning, and just as I made the last multiple choice decision on whether I'd rather watch television or play baseball the lady told Laura and me to pardon the surprise but I needed to be shut up alone for another two hours with a kind of raw intelligence test they tacked on to the mental health portion. I said it was fine, just let me go to the bathroom and sharpen my pencil, not mentioning my suspicion that this was a fresh trick.
Laura took a breath and quietly blew her words out toward the lady, telling her in a way that could sound rude if you don't imagine it correctly, Well, she's here. She's willing and more than capable. I know the government's always created a certain amount of make-work, but it's worrisome for you to double tests that don't matter.
The lady said every time the court decided a child's life, the individual had to be run through particular tests before they could more or less turn you out into a new future. Pardon her again for not telling us about yet another final detail sooner, but a letter would be coming with instructions on when and where to take me for a thorough physical, courtesy of the government, down to the eyes, ears, and teeth.
She was smiling, hopeful we'd appreciate a free medical visit, but Laura blew gently again, saying, I'll take care of it. We have a family doctor. Shouldn't my fitness as a parent be a concern?
Laura wasn't being conceited, only picturing us in a line of teenage mothers with babies on their hips sucking root beer out of blue plastic milk bottles. Sorry to say it but I filled out that scene in the bathroom. When I got back and saw Laura running my pencils through
a motorized sharpener, her tight method of movement and the way she dashed back her hair made her favor Ava Gardner, definite-edged in the midst of murky people, like in The Night of the Iguana when she's managing the old maid and the traveling women. The lady was fixated on Laura. She hadn't answered Laura yet, but she finally said, You can take her to the Mayo Clinic if you want to, and we know you're more than fit to take permanent custody of Ellen. How many pencils does she need?
More than she was led to believe, Laura told her, but since this is the last time, I'll let it be, and hope she'll be ready when I come for her. You know, it's Saturday.
She didn't say she was aggravated that the second test made us miss Willy Wonka and interrupted her plan to help catch me up on ordinary events by taking me to one childhood-type movie a month. She was aware of how when I was little, we stayed inside the house. The thought of heading out to the matinee movies or the family drive-in theater never arose due to different extremes. Now it was another thing available just to get up and go do. After American Bandstand, after the other two foster girls and I ate some sandwiches off the fold-out tables, we'd make the first afternoon showing and then walk around downtown, eating hot dogs and window shopping.
After the tests, Laura let me in the car, not all there, mumbling to me, And I'm even sorrier the downtown theater's switching over from Willy Wonka to Art Garfunkel, of all people, in something you can't see and I don't want to. We need another theater. Who here would buy a ticket to watch Art Garfunkel with his clothes off?
I said, It's okay about missing the movie. They'll probably bring it back on the summer daytime schedule next year.
But you'll be too old for it then, she said. I'm aware you already are, but I thought it was important. How do you think you did on the tests?
I told her fine but draining, so I probably would've passed out in the theater. She said, Well, it's worked out for the best I suppose. We've got ten miles of straight road home if you want to rest your head in my lap.
I was sore from tensing in a hard chair for so long and didn't feel like touching right then, but I didn't want her to take it as I was upset about the movie and do the kind of out of her way thing she was prone to do and suggest we follow it to the next town. I was also guilty from being relieved I didn't have to sit through Willy Wonka and come out jangled up after two hours of watching overly eager singers and have to fix my face
to say I'd just had a red-letter time of my life. Sweaty and sticky candy factory children hopping and singing around the chocolate vats, like they just happen to be living out the words to the songs, could irk you. I get more of a bang out of stories of realism that take pllace in the house or in the city, nothing on the open range, no forest or jungle except for Heart of Darkness, and except for Moby Dick, no man versus nature.
I was glad to feel her fingers on my hair though when I remembered the dark undersoul Willy Wonka had in the book and wondered if they'd allowed enough of him in the movie that you'd come out nervous about opening candy bars. People my age are old enough to know better, but I know some on my road, including myself, who're jubus about unwrapping a new cake of soap because of the nightmare possibility of seeing an innocent, trapped face staring up at you, permanently pressed there after a bad snatched hostage ordeal at Old Soap Molly's house. If you've lived a certain way and already have a lasting set of damages, you avoid what frightening fantasies you can.
It was only ten miles, but the weight of Laura's hand on my head and the tires underneath us knocked me out. I went straight to bed and just as I fell away, I was jerked back by the idea that the government was an expert at making you wait. I was facing another span of time I'd had to get to the other side of, not live wholly inside. After a month had passed, Laura called the Social Service lady, who said she couldn't help the backup, but remember the tests were only formalities. I wanted to shout and ask her if she'd ever needed permission to call her home a home or been jolted out of ease she'd trusted would come because the world couldn't possibly keep turning the wrong way. I pictured her arriving on the scene when I was too far past my ability to endure it and wreck what there was left of the life I'd reduced to reading with bleeding eyes and crawling to the supper table and crying on a pallet in the Easy Reader section of the library at school.
Copyright 2006 by Kaye Gibbons
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Meet the Author
KAYE GIBBONS is the author of eight novels, including Ellen Foster, A Virtuous Woman and Divining Women. With domestic sales of more than 4.2 million copies and numerous worldwide translations, she was designated "one of the most lyrical writers working today" by Entertainment Weekly. She lives in Raleigh, NC with her 3 daughters.
From the Hardcover edition.
- Raleigh, North Carolina, and New York, New York
- Date of Birth:
- May 5, 1960
- Place of Birth:
- Nash County, North Carolina
- Attended North Carolina State University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1978-1983
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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I read a lot and this is the first time I threw a book out half read - not saving it to pass along along to friends and family. I found the language and long run on sentences irritating. The writing style alienated me from Ellen Foster whom I had remembered dearly from years before. I do have on my shelves several earlier works of Kaye Gibbons but I would label this book 'disappointing'.
Kaye Gibbons has done an outstanding job with this sequel. Books hardly ever make me cry but Ellen's insight into her mother's past is one of the most poignant moments in the book. If you fell in love with Ellen in the first book, you'll surely fall in love all over again after reading this sequel.
Ellen Foster is back in Kaye Gibbons' new novel and she's older, wiser, and as much fun as ever. It is always a joy to read an Ellen Foster book so I hope that this one will be followed by another. And the ending in this one is just plain fantastic! I will not say anything more since I do not wish to spoil it for other readers but it's one of the best endings I've ever read. And I live in a house with about 900 books, so that's saying something exceptionally good!
Ellen Foster returns in as spirited, poignant and fiercely independent a voice as ever. With the base of a secure home 15 year old Ellen is able to feel the impact of her mother's suicide, observe class snippiness of the best and brightest at an educational camp and hang in there with her less gifted friends. A very welcome reappearance of one of the two best portraits of growing up in poverty (the other being Cynthia Rylant's Missing May) in decades.
I love to read. I love to escape into a book and forget about the present day world outside my door. So when authors these days insist on spilling their politics into their works of fictin I find it cheap and dirty. If you want to write about politics, write a political book. Do not sucker in your readers by hiding your rants and beliefs in the middle of a work of fiction. I find that sneaky, unprofesstional and weak. Kaye Gibbons, as much as I like your books, I will never buy another one.