Short Saturday: A Virtuous Woman

I’m making a suggested reading list for a well-educated, well-read friend who has never been able to “get in” to fiction … but has declared her desire to do so. I’ve already decided on the first book: A Virtuous Woman, by Kaye Gibbons. I’ve read it several times, though not in at least a decade. It is, in my opinion, a perfect book.

No, really. I opened it up just now and read the first page, and then I thought it might be time to remind you about what I look for in a first line, a first paragraph, a first chapter.

She hasn’t been dead four months and I’ve already eaten to the bottom of the deep freeze. I even ate the green peas. Used to I wouldn’t turn my hand over for green peas.

My whole name is Blinking Jack Ernest Stokes, stokes the fire, stokes the stove, stokes the fiery furnace of hell! I’ve got a nerve problem in back of the face so I blink. June nicknamed me for it when she was little.

My wife’s name was Ruby Pitt Woodrow Stokes. She was a real pretty woman. Used to I used to lay up in bed and say, “Don’t take it off in the dark! I want to see it all!”

Ruby died with lung cancer in March. She wasn’t but forty-five, young woman to die so early. She used to tell me, she’d say, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. I imagine I’ll stop smoking about the time you stop drinking.” June’s daddy, Burr, told me one time people feed on each other’s bad habits, which might be true except for one thing, I’m not really what I would call a drinking man. I hardly ever take a drink except when I need one.

But Ruby died and they laid her out and crossed her hands over her bosom, and I said to them, “I never saw her sleeping like that.” They said but that’s the way everybody was laid, so I said, “Fine then, I’ll let her be.”

I did lean over in the coffin though and fix her fingers so the nicotine stains wouldn’t show. Ruby had the creamiest soft skin and I hated to have brown spots ruin her for people.*

Think about what this first half of the first chapter tells you. There’s a lot of information here, not least how much Jack loved Ruby. But consider these—voice, milieu, time of year, protagonist, characterization. And if you’re like me, you may already be thinking about shedding a tear.

I’ll write more about Gibbons as time goes on; I love her work. (No, no: I adore it. It’s brilliant, all of it.) Meanwhile, my friend will appreciate A Virtuous Woman for many reasons. As students of the craft, I think you might too.

* From pages 1 and 2 of the Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill first edition, published in 1989.


Tweet: It’s time to remind you about what I look for in a 1st line, 1st paragraph, 1st chapter.
Tweet: One of my top 3 favorite books: Kaye Gibbons’s A Virtuous Woman. It’s perfect.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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One Comment

  1. Ellen says:

    This is next after The Goldfinch and Remains of the Day. Thanks for giving us enough information to see what we’re getting into. Love this unique voice. Thanks again!