Rowing in Eden
God bless the child who grows up to become a writer. Keeper of the gate as opposed to life of the party. Introverted note-taker, instead of self-confident prom queen. Awkward and stumbling in matters of the heart. And so it is with bookish outcast Frances Jean Wahl, the 13-year-old protagonist in Elizabeth Evans' new novel Rowing in Eden.
With a 1965 Iowa backdrop, Rowing in Eden peels away at the artifice of an era on the cusp of revolution through the eyes of the youngest member of the socially self-conscious Family Wahl. Franny's father, Brick, is a besotted rage-aholic, smothered in grandiosity, and joined by Franny's mother, lovely Peg, the former Miss Johnson County who can "still bring up a shine on her once much-praised looks" when the need arises.
Then there's the chaste Rosamund, eldest Wahl girl, who has raised cock-teasing and deliberate passionlessness to an art form. And rounding out the Wahl family is the black sheep, the middle girl, Martie, who, at 19 has garnered a reputation as a hard-drinking whore.
Franny herself is mostly ignored by her illustrious family. She peers out at the world from behind a diary she has stealthily titled Franny Wahl's Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson. She rows out on the lake adjoining her home in a boat upon which she's painted the name Eden after reading the Dickinson poem containing the lines: "Rowing in Eden. Ah, the Sea! Might I but moor/Tonight In Thee!" Peg Wahl, never having read the poem, objects to Franny's naming the boat Eden, worried that someone might think Franny suggestive, so Franny paints over the words with the number assigned the poem in the anthology: #58.
This is a world where appearance is everything, where girls are taught the fine points of emotional manipulation as well as the power of holding back. Where boys can tell if a girl's a virgin "by the way she walks." Vietnam and the sexual revolution are inches away from subverting the paradigm, and yet in this small Iowa lake town Franny is cautioned against acting on any remotely authentic impulse: "We don't do that, Franny."
While Brick and Peg cavort with the Pynch Lake social set at the Top Hat Club where, because of Brick's temper and large debts, they are slowly becoming pariahs, Rosamund and Martie fill the stately Wahl home with weekend guests and parties. It is at one of these parties where Franny, who is told to stay upstairs during the bash, becomes the objet d'art of one of the male guests. Her only previous quasi-sexual experience has been with one of the thuggish Prohaski brothers, a boy whose ultimate dream is to one day own a Harley-Davidson and a house with a sunken living room: "Still, it was nice he'd shared his dream with her, wasn't it? And that he'd implied Franny was the one he wanted snuggled up beside him in that sunken living room?"
The ensuing relationship with the new lad, handsome Ryan Marvell, and its inevitable ending, is the hook upon which Evans hangs her gems: lyrical, precise prose and carefully crafted point of view. Evans often groups images as a way of elevating voice in this third-person narrative: "Fruit pies in their cloudy wax paper wraps. Cupcakes. Wonder Bread that built strong bodies twelve ways. Twinkies. Snowballs covered in pink and white coconut. She kept her face turned toward the bakery rack while she sipped at her bottle of pop. Through the rack, it was possible to see the Pynch Lake telephone directory, which dangled like a hanged animal from the black pay telephone above."
Rowing in Eden is one of those endearing tales that explores the landscape of the misfit adolescent. Franny Wahl ambles cloddishly, and, ultimately, nobly, through a maze of self-discovery. As in any good coming-of-age tale, the reader is left satisfied, but certain that the end of the book is hardly the end of the journey.