by Susan Rebecca White; Touchstone, 2013; 316 pages; $25.
A book by Susan Rebecca White is affectionate repatriation. Lovingly and with enviable understanding she writes of that old Southern tradition of family and home: mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives — each looking for a place at the table, all trying to discover what that means. Her previous novels, “Bound South” and “A Soft Place to Land,” explored these relationships in her beloved Atlanta and San Francisco, always with a hint of that American tradition of a western frontier.
“A Place at the Table” employs the post-Civil War American paradigm of “the journey North” to expand the themes of White’s previous works. The journeys of her three seemingly dissimilar expatriates are rendered with compassion and, well, an understanding smile, as she explores the inevitable loneliness — what she calls the “impotent nostalgia”— of our roots.
The novel begins and ends with couples. Alice and James are a young brother and sister in a freed-slave community in 1920s North Carolina. A seemingly idyllic prologue quickly changes course as Alice and James discover the new reality of their daily lives. As the novel draws to a close in 1990s New York, 30-year-old Bobby and middle-aged divorcee Amelia decide to share an apartment that once belonged to a mutual friend, and they, too, discover the new reality of daily life.
At the heart of the novel is Bobby, a boy from a strict Baptist upbringing. Bobby recognizes he is gay, leaves his Georgia home with the help of his “Meemaw,” and makes a life for himself in New York City. Bobby, who learned to cook at 2 while his older brothers were becoming athletes, gains a reputation as a young chef famous for his “stealth” Southern cooking, basically “translating old Southern classics into dishes upper East Siders can understand.”
Bobby’s path not only reflects the paths of Alice and Amelia, but actually crosses theirs at the restaurant he revives. Alice was the restaurant’s chef around mid-century when Café Andres was a hangout for the era’s culturati. Amelia has known the place for years, often invited by her remarkable aunt Kate.
How Alice, Amelia and Bobby find each other and home is the novel’s strength. As it moves through much of the American 20th century, “A Place at the Table” tackles intolerance of many kinds. But in a White book, even three lonely exiles become survivors.
White is convinced that coincidence doesn’t exist, that we come together because there is a grand plan always at work. Rendering that truth so confidently and effortlessly — that is White’s magic. Wanting each of us to find a place at the table — that is White’s gift.
Steven Whitton is Professor of English at Jacksonville State University.