National Writing Project

Book Review: Valerie Hobbs and the "Old-Adult" Novel

By: Sheridan Blau
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 11, No. 1
Date: 2006

Summary: Sheridan Blau reviews Valerie Hobbs's first adult novel, Call It a Gift, which follows the love affair of a pair of septuagenarians and shows us "how much growing old is another version of growing up."

 

Untitled Document

University of Nevada Press: Western Literature Series, 2005. $18.00; 222 pages. ISBN 0874176123

Over the past 25 years or so—from the time she decided in a South Coast Writing Project (California) summer institute that she could really be a writer of fiction—Valerie Hobbs has become an increasingly successful and critically celebrated writer of young adult novels, with seven of them now to her credit, including two that have won prestigious literary prizes. Her admirers include tens of thousands of young people who have found her books on their own or have been directed to them by discerning parents and teachers, many of whom would testify that Hobbs's stories are compelling and psychologically illuminating fiction for readers of any age. Many of those adult readers, among whom I number myself, must also have wondered, as I have wondered, what would happen if Hobbs ever turned her prodigious talent to the production of a novel directed not to adolescent readers, but to more sophisticated adult readers like herself and her academic colleagues who teach literature and writing—as she has for more than three decades.

Hobbs has given her colleagues and all her adult fans more than they might have expected with her new novel, Call It a Gift, which is clearly a serious work of adult fiction, though one might want to classify it more precisely—in contrast to her string of successful young adult novels—as an old-adult novel, a novel that abandons a moral landscape defined by the challenges facing teens as they move from childhood to adolescence or adolescence to adulthood, in favor of a world where much older adults—adults who by any standard could be said to be elderly—must learn to cope with the problems of old age and the ultimate maturity of a dignified transition to the next world.

In its simplest terms Call It a Gift is a novel about a love affair and the wilderness adventure of a pair of septuagenarians whose travels and travails call to mind the American literary tradition of what the great critic and editor Philip Rahv identified as the "Redskin" novel (as opposed to "Paleface" novels of sedentary or urban life), where a young adventurer characteristically flees to the wilderness in order to escape the confinements and repressions of the village or town and the judgmental intrusions of parents or other adults. In this case the city that the adventurers flee is Santa Barbara (evoked so affectionately that it hardly qualifies as a place to escape from), and the judgmental intruders here are not parents and other adults representing the wisdom of the town, but adult children and grandchildren who seem unable to understand or sympathize with the passionate and adventurous inclinations of the richly imagined protagonist couple.

Like the characters in a young adult novel, the lovers in this old-adult novel have to discover (or rediscover) sex and their own capacity to make and follow through on decisions that disappoint the expectations of adults (here adult children) who would constrain whatever impulses the elderly pair reveal toward romantic love or independence or adventure. And like many, if not most, young adult novels, the plot of this old-adult novel eventually leads to a point of more mature understanding and thereby to a reconciliation among all the generations in the conflicted families.

My synoptic account of Valerie Hobbs' new old-adult novel will be misleading if it seems to suggest that this novel is actually a geriatric version of a formulaic young adult novel, because that is not how any reader is likely to experience it. What may appear formulaic—though only at the highly abstract level represented in a very brief synopsis—is the structure of most adult fiction that belongs to the genre of the coming-of-age novel, as well the great body of young adult fiction that is almost necessarily characterized as fiction about growing up. What Valerie Hobbs' old-adult novel shows us, in other words (and shows us helpfully, insightfully, and sympathetically though unsentimentally) is how much growing old is another version of growing up.

About the Author Sheridan Blau is director of the South Coast Writing Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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