A Place to Call Home

Sweet Tea and Jesus Shoes

When Venus Fell

 
On Bear Mountain by Deborah Smith
(Little Brown, $23.95, PG) ISBN 0-316-80077-5
*****
Here are some Helpful Hints about how to read a Deborah Smith book: First, clear your calendar. Second, find a quiet, solitary place to read. Finally, prepare to be swept away. There must be a few witches in Smithís six generations of Georgia ancestors. How else do you explain the powerful effect her books have on me? When Iím reading her books, it feels as if Real Life doesnít matter, as if it barely exists. When I finish, itís like awakening from a spell. I spent several days spell-bound On Bear Mountain, and was reluctant to come back down.

The novel's unique plot revolves around the Iron Bear - a modern art sculpture commissioned by a small Georgia community, and created by struggling New York artist Richard Riconni. Ursula Powell was born in 1966, on the day that the Bear was delivered to its new home, and it changed the course of her life. While most of the Tiberville residents thought the Bear was a hideous mistake, Ursulaís father was the one man who appreciated its power and beauty. Despite her fatherís love for the Bear, for years Ursula cursed the figure, believing it had brought tragedy and death to her family. But she never expected the Bear to bring her the one man she could love - and couldnít possibly keep.

Quentin Riconni adopted his creed early in life: Donít love what you canít save, donít want what you canít have, donít need what you might have to die for. After his father created the Iron Bear, he earned enough money to rent a small studio hundreds of miles away from the familyís Brooklyn apartment. Quentinís childhood was spent caring for his mother while resenting his fatherís total devotion to his art. That feeling only deepened as he grew older, and he blamed his father for forcing him to make choices that shattered his own dreams of becoming an architect.

Ursula and Quentin donít meet until almost halfway through the novel, 32 years after Richard Ricconiís sculpture reached its final destination. The Bear now sits on Ursulaís property. Despite trying to break away from the Powell legacy of poverty and failure, Ursula finds herself stuck on Bear Mountain, shouldering the weight of family responsibilities. When Quentin appears with a generous offer to purchase the Bear, she canít afford to say no, but neither can she agree. The two are linked by the Bear, but the Bear may also tear them apart, despite their immediate attraction.

For despite their disparate backgrounds, the redneck Ursula and the erstwhile car thief Quentin are perfectly matched. An ex-boyfriend once complained that Ursula was too self-sufficient, claiming, "Youíre a small business with no interest in outside investors." And Quentinís former Army drill sergeant called the young man "the loneliest, toughest motherf*cker on the planet." They both resent the choices their parents made that favored art over love, but neither of them can move beyond the past to realize that itís possible for art and love to co-exist together.

Quentin spends his life looking for patterns. They help him assess people and structures. Theyíre what make him the successful owner of an architectural salvage business. But Ursula, too, is aware of the patterns that have governed her family, and at first she tries to make a clean break from them. Quentin finally learns that within him lies the talent to build, not just take apart, and Ursula learns that itís possible to stay true to her heritage while also changing the familyís destiny.

This brief description canít really do justice to the novelís rich, complex plot, especially because Iím trying to avoid spoiling its surprising twists and turns. By the time Ursula and Quentin meet, the reader has learned all about their familiesí respective histories, as well as the loss and guilt that both carry. Their connection is so immediate and fierce that the long build-up to their first encounter is entirely justifiable. Also, the first half of the book allows the reader to become acquainted with several fascinating secondary characters. Smith takes traditional types - the Other Woman, the Evil Town Patriarch, the Spoiled Heiress - and breathes new life into them, giving their personalities multiple facets.

On Bear Mountain is a little less accessible than Smithís two most recent books, A Place to Call Home and When Venus Fell. Smith still displays that slightly warped Southern gothic humor (of the heiress to the townís poultry business, Ursula muses, "She was a princess of poultry. The rest of us were mere peckers."), but the overall tone is more somber than those other novels. Also, she utilizes an unusual point of view once Ursula and Quentin meet that can be somewhat confusing. But the beauty and intensity of the story make it arguably my favorite Smith novel to date. As Quentin likes to quote (in Latin), "Life is brief. Art is forever." On Bear Mountain proves without a doubt that Smith can no longer be considered solely a romance writer. She's become a great Southern novelist, and her work has the power to endure.

--Susan Scribner


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