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Jo Ann Kiser
A Young Woman from the Provinces
Jo Ann Kiser, author

From inhabitant of a cardboard cradle deep in the Kentucky hills to young romantic in New York City, Geneva Clay is transformed by her journey and yet indelibly the same.

As Geneva’s family migrates from one place to another, the once-familiar landscapes of her Kentucky childhood blend into a mosaic of poetic memories and near mythologies. In an Ohio college, she forms enduring friendships that provide both sustenance and education: Ella, an independent and empathetic spirit navigating a racially challenged environment; Sammy, a sophisticated rebel who briefly mentors Geneva; and Annie, who introduces Geneva to the excitement and complexities of New York.

Geneva tentatively adopts the grand city, seeking work and love. After months of unhappy struggle and loneliness, she secures a position in a prestigious research foundation and, taking a chance on a brief encounter in a museum, gets involved with and marries Cullen, her first true love. However, continuing to grapple with reshaping her identity, she eventually leaves the Chatham Foundation and Cullen, too, behind.

Much like Geneva, we all must part with our childhood innocence and embark on a quest to find our place within the universe, one that will fill the void left by the magic circle of meaning we’ve left behind.

This richly detailed bildungsroman, the follow up to Kiser’s story collection The Guitar Player and Other Songs of Exile, surveys a surprising life, answering over its length the question of how its narrator, Geneva Clay of Kentucky coal country, grew from front-porch nights listening to “tree frogs and the lonely palpitating whip-poor-will” to become the kind of book-minded, art-struck New York City dreamer who describes “a celebrated Goya Christ” as a “mass of dark but luminous energy.” The novel bustles with incident and vibrant, everyday life as it considers, year-by-year, Geneva’s youth, from the 1940s into the bumptious 1960s, capturing long-gone people and ways of being (making “lye soap with bacon grease, lye, and water”; paging through a “Monkey Ward wishbook” agape at the “strange contraptions” of the women’s underclothes).

A Young Woman From the Provinces touches on tragedies and occasional conflicts, like Geneva’s parents telling her in Ohio not to befriend a Black boy, or her being asked to take a year off from college to help the family face its debts. Clay’s interest is in the development of a mind, and a self, which means the plotting, over this long novel, mostly concerns the accumulation of experience, as Geneva grows from reading Little Women to Joyce and Dostoyevsky. She’s a fish-out-of-water, in the book’s second half, but she manages swimmingly, making diverse friends who expose her to the world, trying out journalism and work in the publishing industry, and eventually taking a lover, on her own terms.

The New York passages are as alive as those set in the hills, offering deft yet seemingly offhand character portraiture, though, fittingly, these scenes are charged with more energy than lyric detail. The novel’s back half, a gush of events and impressions, demonstrates how much Geneva’s life has changed in contrast to her earlier meditations on Dogwoods, crawdads, and sneakily borrowing father’s Zane Grey novel. Narrative momentum at times slows, as this reads like beautifully presented memories, but readers who appreciate mid-century coming-of-age tales will find much to appreciate.

Takeaway: Gorgeous coming-of-age story of coal-country hollows and 1960s New York.

Comparable Titles: Ann Pancake’s Strange as This Weather Has Been, Harriette Arnow’s The Dollmaker.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A-