She rarely realizes it, but Alex has spent much of her life looking for family, for belonging.
The first 15 years of her life, she essentially had none. Oh, she lived with her mother, an artist and art professor at a Midwestern university. She was well fed, housed and clothed. But her mother was largely indifferent to Alex, not caring what she did as long as Alex didn’t inconvenience or embarrass her. As she entered her teens, Alex realized this neglect had its advantages. She just had to be invisible, and she’d have all the freedom she could want. Maybe too much, as it turns out.
She didn’t know she had a father until she was 10 and his latest novel was a huge success. Her mother sued him, and he showed up unannounced, wanting to see “the bastard” — Alex, his illegitimate daughter. After that he traveled from Los Angeles every now and then, though he never called or wrote.
In the fine new novel by Greensboro’s Lee Zacharias, “What a Wonderful World This Could Be,” Alex’s longing for family and her struggle to find a place for herself send her lurching through some of the most turbulent years of the 20th century.
In 1960, when she’s 15 and at a restaurant with her father, Alex meets Steve Kendrick, a 27-year-old photographer who, it turns out, is taking a position in the university art department where her mother teaches. He asks her to pose for him. Before long, she’s in love. She’s also learning to be a photographer herself.
But in 1964, she meets Ted Neal, a charismatic young man bound for Mississippi and Freedom Summer. It’s not long before Alex leaves Steve and joins Ted and his activist friends. As the 1960s unfold, they join a collective and get involved in the growing movement against the war in Vietnam. Then the radical Weatherman group changes everything for them.
The book opens, though, in 1982, when Alex, leaving the YMCA after her regular morning swim, hears her husband Ted’s name on the TV news. After 11 years of not knowing, she learns that he’s still alive, but that he might not be much longer.
It is time, she realizes, to get on with the next chapter in her life, whatever that will be.
The shock of her vanished husband’s reappearance jolts Alex out of the careful, guarded life she’s been living since she became a photographer and a professor herself at a university in Richmond, Va. Steve is there too, now her oldest friend and protector.
From that dramatic opening, Zacharias’ narrative has many time shifts — weaving through the early 1960s with Steve, the later ‘60s and into the 1970s with Ted, and back and forth again to 1982. For the most part, she does a masterful job of unfolding the story and showing the different worlds Alex lives in. Zacharias is skilled at revealing a character gradually and believably through actions, thoughts and dialogue rather than telling readers what she wants them to know.
Alex, we learn gradually, is more devoted to her art — photography — than to the movement, while the movement is at the center of Ted’s life. In her early, naive years, Alex does believe they can help make the world a better place. Events show her that real change is more difficult than she imagined, that she’ll be doing well to make her own small part of the world better.
As she makes her way through the tumultuous years, Alex’s love for photography illuminates the greater story:
You are the subject of your photographs, she tells her students. You act upon the object … Sooner or later their cameras will teach them what they need to know, that the only truly good photographs come of neither the world out there nor the world within but of the unique balance.
Photography is about light, she has to remind them.
Writing is about light too, about focusing on the vagaries of life, human foibles and the real meaning of family and belonging. Zacharias knows how to shine that light.
Zacharias, who retired after many years as a professor in the MFA creative writing program at UNCG, is the author of three previous novels as well as collections of stories and essays. She has a distinguished list of awards and honors.