” I wasn’t afraid at all by the way he looked at me, not like the way I felt when I’d stand p from picking and see the crew chief staring. Jack’s look was more like what happens when I’m walking from here to the store and the sun catches something on the side of the road just right, and I wonder if it’s a dime or a piece of jewelry to lose, so I pick the dime up, rub the dirt off, look at it hard, hard as I’d look if it’d been a brooch, just because I’d found it, and finding anything of value is unusual, be it a dime or a man with clay-red skin or a young woman resting under a pecan tree. ” (Ch.8, p.69)
A Virtuous Woman is neither a detailed nor engrossing novel, although the writing is remarkable. That the name Kaye Gibbons keeps popping up in various reading lists is the reason I pick it up. The story centers around a man named jack Stokes who, at 40, falls in love with and marries Ruby, only 20 and already widowed. The two richly cadenced Southern voices, with traces of the Gola language that at times can be a challenge to read, explore their profusely differing backgrounds, troubled histories, and their unlikely but loving marriage.
He made her live in one falling-down place right after the other, migrant houses, trailers, places he scrounged up for them to rent. And half the time he wouldn’t work. They’d have to depend on what she could go out and do and bring in. (Ch.3, p.21)
Gibbons writes a tale of a woman who, carefully raised in family of Carolina gentry, shocks her well-to-do parents by running off with John Woodrow, a migrant who abuses her but meets his end at a brawl fight. Ruby marries Jack, the quiet, uneducated farmer—and it seems at first out of convenience but not quite. The love between them makes A Virtuous Woman more of a love story than anything else, even though one is left with more information about the neighbors, the landlords, and Ruby’s first marriage. Gibbons is oddly brief about Ruby and Jack’s life together, and the book opens with her being diagnosed of cancer. The story is told such that the couple narrate from different time periods. Juxtaposed together are jack’s life following Ruby’s death, exhausting the frozen food she had prepared for him, and Ruby’s own preparation for her death. It’s very clear throughout how much they loved each other.
Thinking about dying, I’m not half as worried or depressed over it as I bet Cecil would be if he were in my shoes, thinking he’s bound to be healed one way and then having that doubt come in you know it’s bound to, and nip at all that confidence. What I mostly feel is a sadness over knowing I won’t ever be physically here again, here in my house, at my table, with Jack. (Ch.12, p.116)
This book is a good read but one should not feel compelled to seek it out immediately. In unadorned and unsentimental prose Gibbons shows a woman’s love and concern for her husband’s well-being through her selfless acts. However, the story as a whole is supremely quiet and the reading at times falls flat.
165 pp. Vintage Contemporaries. Paper. [
Read/Skim/ Toss] [ Buy/Borrow]