The book, which highlights White’s skill for crafting narrative and deeply sympathetic characters, follows the lives of half sisters Ruthie and Julia over two decades. At the story’s opening, the sisters — who are in junior high and high school respectively — lose both of their parents to a small plane crash. The reading of the will reveals that Ruthie will move to San Francisco with her aunt and uncle while Julia will remain in their hometown of Atlanta with her birth father and his wife.
Though the sisters, who have always been close, plan to remain each other’s confidant and support despite living on opposite coasts, their new situations and very different ways of dealing with loss create a deep rift. Ruthie’s life in San Francisco exposes her cultures, cuisines and political views never before available to her in Atlanta. She blossoms under the loving care of her aunt and uncle and begins to develop different tastes than those she previously shared with her sister.
Julia, on the other hand, finds herself living with a contentious step mother and an ineffective father. She turns to drugs, alcohol and self-destructive behaviors that eventually result in her being sent to a rehab facility. Further bad decisions and miscommunications lead to a breakdown between the sisters, who become distrustful of each other.
The majority of the book centers around Ruthie who, despite being the more conservative and less attractive sister, seems to be White’s favorite. She is more relatable and more faceted than her wilder, flawed sister. While Julia grows over the course of the book, she is usually selfish, brash and a loose cannon while Ruthie seems to evolve over 16 years’ time, her interests crystalizing and her point of view maturing.
Perhaps the best parts of the books — and it’s a highly enjoyable read — are White’s descriptions of San Francisco, which she colors more favorably than her own hometown of Atlanta. White elegantly depicts food and clothing and applies a skilled hand at flashbacks and letters that illuminate the past.
What is less successful — though perhaps necessary to the plot — are the references to recent events such as September 11 and “the miracle on the Hudson.” To place the fictional characters of Soft in real time is somewhat jarring. The intrusion of these real events removes the reader from White’s capable hands and allows a personal perspective to taint the story. Of course, not all readers will feel this way and, overall, Soft is successful.
Susan Rebecca White reads from A Soft Place to Land at Malaprop’s on Saturday, May 22, 7 p.m. Free.