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Orbiting Alcott 

Pamela Duncan's story of a North Carolina family follows the path of a favorite author

The prologue to Pamela Duncan's Moon Women (Delacorte Press, 352 pp., $23.95) introduces the best elements of the story that follows--a little anger, a little humor and destruction, and a whole lot of family. It begins with Ruth Ann Moon, eight-and-a-half months pregnant, seething on her front porch in her nightgown, waiting for a cheating husband. A bout of tears ends with her smashing a set of 12 crystal glasses with "forever" written on them, her sister's wedding gift:

She clamped the cigarette in the corner of her mouth and reached for a glass. "That first one was for ugly wedding presents," she muttered under her breath. "Number two here's for unplanned pregnancy. ... And three. For bratty children. And four. For piles of laundry. And five. For unwashed dishes. ..."

Her husband A.J. arrives right before number 10. As he crunches across the glass-strewn gravel to meet her, Ruth Ann orders him to stop, her arm cranked back with the last glass.

"Honey, I can see your panties," says A.J., and with this first hilarious encounter, Moon Women has begun its enjoyable ride through family life in small-town, Piedmont North Carolina.

The Moons are primarily made up of grandmother Marvelle, mother Ruth Ann, sister Cassandra and daughter Ashley. Their quartet dominates the book, and Duncan does a bang-up job switching perspectives to allow each of their inner lives to come through. It's rare for a first-time novelist to take on so many voices, and the result is both satisfying and essential to Duncan's overall project, which eschews fancy plotting to keep close watch on its characters as they cope with the usual cycle of births, deaths and betrayals. Even in the 1990s, the Moons are curiously insulated from the outside world and rather uninterested in it--their own family keeps them busy enough.

From the prologue, the story skips ahead 19 years, to when the baby inside Ruth Ann has grown up enough to make her own mistakes. Pregnant, Ashley comes home to live with her reluctant mother, and eventually takes charge of her aging grandmother Marvelle. The ensuing novel covers the three generations as they come together. Marvelle often retreats to her memories and a dark family secret that is revealed only to readers. Ruth Ann gets laid off when the town's mill shuts down, and she involves herself in an unlikely business deal. Ashley contends with Keith, the father of her child, who moves next to the Moons to prove his loyalty. On the outskirts of this threesome, Ruth Ann's sister Cassandra hovers, still waiting for her own life to take shape.

A North Carolina native, Duncan convincingly evokes the lives and voices of her people with colorful, idiomatic prose. Her style shows obvious streaks of Lee Smith, with whom she studied at N.C. State University, but her tone reveals a much earlier influence, that of Louisa May Alcott. In an interview with The Independent last year, Duncan listed the 19th-century author among her favorites, and like many episodes in Little Women, her own humorous family interchanges are often modulated by moral purpose.

Flip to a random chapter in Moon Women and you're bound to find characters giving themselves, or others, advice:

If she got another chance, she promised herself she wouldn't waste it this time. She wouldn't be left wondering what if for the rest of her life. --Cassandra, p. 52

One thing I've learned in this life is that love between a man and a woman is a hard thing to hold on to. It always starts out real pretty and nice, and both of you thinks each other's perfect, but then you stay together long enough you start finding out you ain't. --Marvelle, p. 94

These homey platitudes succeed when the characters who utter them are otherwise ornery as hell, as with Marvelle, Ashley and Ruth Ann. But they fall flat when they come from the true satellites of Moon Women, the men. Keith, as the lovelorn father-to-be, has a story line packed with little parables. On first entrance, he meets Ruth Ann's brother, Dwight Moon, who lectures him about the evils of television and air-conditioning before giving him a job on his farm. Soon after, he gets a lesson on loving a Moon woman from now ex-husband A.J. Then he finally experiences his own epiphany, after comforting Ashley when she loses someone dear: "Here, he'd been killing himself for months, trying to figure out how to be the man she wanted, and the one day he quit trying so hard and just concentrated on taking care of her, that was what done it. He would never understand women, never, never, never."

Ultimately, as A.J. wisely observes, the Moons stay Moons no matter whom they marry, and the novel awards the men their lesser role as if it were written by granny Marvelle herself. Yet the fact that Keith is so good and true has an authorial predetermination that also smacks of Alcott. Like Jo March's kind and intelligent Mr. Baer, Duncan has invented the perfect husband for Ashley, who represents the future of the Moons. This move highlights a certain preservationism, a wish to assure readers that the culture a book chronicles will continue.

Both authors have a lot to preserve--great shifts have rocked the South in Duncan's lifetime, and when Alcott was growing up, more than five million immigrants poured into the United States, the Civil War was fought, and the suffrage movement took hold. As with Moon Women's mill closing, the story of Jo March and her sisters acknowledges its era's hardships only through the veil of domestic life, but they are there: the war, the poor neighbors, the girls' varied enterprises to earn money. Tragedy also comes knocking when the youngest daughter, Beth, succumbs to illness and dies.

Perhaps it's this issue of tragedy that finally separates Duncan's otherwise compelling domestic saga from her predecessor's. While Moon Women has its share of death, the strange injustice and unexpectedness of human mortality gets swept away too quickly in favor of resolution. The problem is, no matter how happy Duncan makes her ending, readers won't want to fully let go of the headstrong, mistake-prone Moon women of the early chapters. Ruth Ann was right to smash the gift that said "forever" on it. One only wishes that Duncan had done so, too. EndBlock

  • Pamela Duncan's new novel, "Moon Women," shows the influence of Louisa May Alcott.


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