Pearl by Tabitha King

Me again. Kim is taking the next two weeks. In fact, we have something special planned for next week so I went twice in a row to give her time. Anyway, today you’re going to hear from me again. This time? Pearl by Tabitha King.

I have to admit that I decided to pick up Pearl by Tabitha King after realizing she was Stephen King’s wife. I didn’t know about the book, didn’t know Stephen’s wife was also a writer, or anything. I was immediately curious what kind of writer she might be.

Pearl presents us with Pearl Dickenson, a woman who has inherited a home in a small New England community from a family she has almost no personal connection to. She knew her mother, and then only her grandmother when her mother died. No one else personally. This relates (in ways that may not be completely elaborated) to the fact that Pearl’s mother and grandmother were white, whereas Pearl’s father was black.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 6th for Jennifer Weiner.)

Pearl is capable and knows what she wants. She buys a diner in town and is immediately successful. However, there are parts of herself she is not completely able to control. Against her better judgment, she cannot resist getting into sexual relationships almost simultaneously with two very different men in the small town. The first is a rich and indolent young poet pretty boy named David Christopher:

Inside was all shadows and she could almost feel the house exhaling coolness. David Materialized out of them from somewhere, barefoot, in shorts and an unbuttoned crinkled gauze shirt, its long sleeves rolled up to the elbows. Despite the interior shadow, he wore sunglasses.

“Welcome.”

Solemnly he flung open the door. It cracked smartly against the siding and he caught it as it came back, sparing Pearl an ungraceful jump over the stoop to avoid the door spanking her calves. He led her through the dark entry hall past a galley kitchen.

Abruptly the house opened into the living room, three stories high, with a wall all of glass facing the lake. It was a breathtaking wedge of space that dwarfed the two of them, an alien intrusion of right angles into the natural world of forest, lake, and mountain, and yet in scale with the enormous old pines, the vast containment of the lake’s water, the leap of the land toward the sky that made the mountains reach.

and the second is a burly and laconic mechanic named Reuben Styles:

He knocked politely at the screen door.

“Come in, Reuben, it’s open.”

“Pearl, you’re up late,” he said, flashing her a grin that was just a wee bit slowed with legal anesthetic. He breathed a yeasty zephyr over her.

“You too. Excuse my dishabille. Thanks for the berries.”

“It was too hot to sleep,” he explained.

She struggled to keep a straight face.

“Actually,” he said shyly, “those are your berries. I picked ’em on your land.”

“Do tell. Sit down.”

He pulled up a straight-back chair, turned it around, and sat down with its back for an arm rest.

She offered him a berry and he popped it into his mouth with great relish.

“I shouldn’t. I ate a lot when I was picking ’em.

She giggled. “I remember picking strawberries at a farm as a kid and eatin’ too many.”

He grinned. She was looking at the way his mouth hitched up ironically when he did that, and not thinking about the box of berries, and she sat up. The box spilled and they both reached for it and came up with each other’s hands. Oh man, why couldn’t you have waited till the fall, when poets fall off the trees and get swept back to the cities? Her stomach tightened up, partly in panic, partly in a nearly hurtful arousal. It seemed David hadn’t satisfied her after all, but only awakened her to what she had been missing.

David is unbalanced, occasionally suicidal, still not over the murder of his sister as a child. Reuben has his problems too, a daughter running wild and a wife who ran off with a preacher. Either would make Pearl’s life complicated, but the combination of both is a sure-fire recipe for a crash. Pearl knows this better than anyone, but can’t stop herself and can never manage to tell each about the other.

Life in the town starts to get more complicated. Reuben’s daughter’s boyfriend brutalizes her and Reuben puts him in the hospital, giving Reuben’s ex wife a chance to try to take custody. David has episodes that disturb Pearl deeply. People start to notice the affairs. Pearl, against what she really wants to do, keeps juggling. Things will come to a head, though. That is the one certainty.

King lays down solid, literary lines. Pearl reminded me of John Irving or Richard Ford a bit, but still a distinctive voice over them. The characters are full and tangible, the storyline is engaging, and the descriptions are vivid. I can’t understand why Pearl isn’t still in print, because it is very good. It isn’t one of my all time favorites or anything, but King is definitely an accomplished author.

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