Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
Review: Greensboro author introduces readers to character who finds change more difficult than imagined
0 Comments

Review: Greensboro author introduces readers to character who finds change more difficult than imagined

  • 0
{{featured_button_text}}
Lee Zacharias - Credit Michael Gaspeny (1).jpg

Greensboro’s Lee Zacharias latest novel is “What a Wonderful World This Could Be.” She is retired as a professor in the MFA creative writing program at UNCG.

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.

0 Comments

Stay up-to-date on what's happening

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

If you're reading this: Congratulations! You've made it to the first semi-post-pandemic holidays and almost to the end of a tough year. What better way to escape from — or face up to — troubles past and future than with books? The following six should carry you into 2022. Our most anticipated December releases include a professor's memoir about his tumultuous relationship with his late father, ...

NONFICTION: An adventure of a lifetime in a trade nearly killed by the internet — bookselling. "The Last Bookseller: A Life in the Rare Book Trade" by Gary Goodman; University of Minnesota Press (200 pages, $19.95) ——— "A ghost story" is how Gary Goodman characterizes his memoir "The Last Bookseller: A Life in the Rare Book Trade," and there is a whiff of sepia among its pages. It is, after ...

You’ve probably heard that the supply-chain crisis has been particularly hard on bookstores. These next few weeks, the most sought-after titles could be frustratingly sought after, even after you’ve stopped soughting on Christmas Eve. Santa is facing ships stuck outside ports, nonexistent warehouse space and manufacturing stoppages. Laying a finger aside of his nose, while laying another ...

Alone and out of touch on the Galapagos during the COVID-19 lockdown, a young woman reconsiders her life. "Wish You Were Here" by Jodi Picoult; Ballantine Books (338 pages, $28.99) ——— March 13, 2020. The first words of Jodi Picoult's novel strike dread, or at least trepidation. Do we really want to relive those disorienting, soul-crushing first days of the shutdown felt around the world? ...

A father of daughters wrestles with what to do about abuses he discovers at a Magdalen laundry in 1950s Ireland. "Small Things Like These" by Claire Keegan; Grove Press (128 pages, $23) ——— Claire Keegan, award-winning author of two collections of short stories and a novella, now gives us her best work yet. "Small Things Like These" is a short, wrenching, thoroughly brilliant novel mapping the ...

A collection of essays from a wide-ranging group of Minnesota writers exploring life during COVID-19 and the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. "We Are Meant to Rise," edited by Carolyn Holbrook and David Mura; University of Minnesota Press (224 pages, $18.95) ——— Who is allowed to tell their story? Who is silenced? And what is lost when stories go untold? As the anthology "We Are Meant ...

This lovingly curated volume of Woody Guthrie's song lyrics, photos and other ephemera will introduce the singer to a whole new generation. "Woody Guthrie: Songs and Art, Words and Wisdom" by Nora Guthrie and Robert Santelli; Chronicle Books (340 pages, $40) ——— Sitting on the front porch of our farmhouse outside of Buffalo, New York, in 1964, I played and sang Woody Guthrie's signature song, ...

When I look over this list of the best books of 2021, I see what’s not there, what didn’t make the final cut and deserved the hosannas. Rebecca Solnit’s discursive biography “Orwell’s Roses.” Clint Smith’s sobering travelogue “How the Word is Passed.” Matt Bell’s climate-change epic “Appleseed.” Even Seth Rogan’s “Yearbook,” a consistently thoughtful collection of essays on the strangeness of ...

  • Updated

FICTION: Jenny Shank's stories paint a vivid portrait of Denver, a changing and diverse city. "Mixed Company: Stories" by Jenny Shank; Texas Review Press (245 pages, $21.95) ——— The 12 stories in Jenny Shank's affecting new collection, "Mixed Company," live up to the book's title: Shank's characters navigate the fraught encounters that arise when people of different racial and economic ...

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

Breaking News

News Alert