La vie qui m'entoure par Ellen Foster

by Kaye Gibbons
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The cynical view of Kaye Gibbons's The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster would be that the Poor Little Match Girl has morphed into Cinderella. Ellen Foster, a book anointed by Oprah's Book Club®, was the tale of young Ellen, daughter of a neurasthenic twit of a mother and a drunken abusive father, who was tossed out of her wicked aunt's home on Christmas Day (Shades of Dickens!). Plucky Ellen fetcheed up at the doorstep of her chosen foster mother and life settled down.

This book begins with a too cute, aggressively innocent letter to Derek Bok, President of Harvard University, asking for early admission. Now that Ellen is 15, she believes that she is ready for a larger world, a better education and a different life. That pursuit becomes an incidental subtext to ongoing events. The next two-thirds of the book feels experimental, with a jumpy, jerky style, information left out, information left in that goes nowhere--not easy reading. Then, Gibbons takes control of her story and turns everything upside down, in Ellen's favor.

There are some priceless exchanges in the book. Regarding an insight that comes to one for the first time: "It didn't matter if a thousand scholars studied how Madame Bovary probably wouldn't have had to rot from the inside if she'd read better books in her girlhood, if the idea strikes you in Baltimore in a room full of people who say they already know, my theory is it's still your personal view." And this, when she is annoying her friend, Stuart: "Stuart, I said, I never know what to do when you decide to let me in on an argument you've been having for us."

So, what does all of this add up to? A good, not great, sequel to the quite good Ellen Foster that is only an adjective away from mawkishness and sentimentality. If we adopt the aforementioned cynical view, the story becomes a treacly fable where the good prevail--and even get rich. A more generous view is that Ellen has suffered enough and it's her turn. Read it and take your pick. --Valerie Ryan

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