Like China is a first novel to celebrate--a work of remarkable craft and insights. We meet Katha, a beautiful young woman who is unable to account for her passage to a place as strange as a foreign land--almost like China--an abusive marriage as seductive as it is destructive. Her husband, a dynamic self-made man, has become a drug addict. He has temporarily abandoned her at their summer house in the Hamptons, but Katha knows he will come back and kill her. She reaches out to the only other person in her life--Peter, the little boy who mows her lawn.
Peter is the youngest child in a poor fisherman’s family. His mother is dead and his father has taken off. His oldest brother, Big Dan, is trying to stay one step ahead of the law in order to hold the family together.
MacDonald Harris, author of The Balloonist and Hemingway’s Suitcase, has written, “What entrances me most about Like China is the play of generations, the strange friendship of a boy and a mature woman, the gulf between child culture and the world of adults, and yet the way in which they somehow establish links.”
Katha and Peter each face a journey of staggering difficulty--through the snare of family betrayal and loss to independence and self-esteem. Yet despite the seriousness of the subject, Varley O’Connor manages, through virtuosic and deeply felt writing, to treat her characters with wit, humor, and affection. Her characters never give in to the desperation of the situation.
Like China is an impressive debut, one that will surely establish Varley O’Connor among the ranks of better American fiction writers.
The New York Times Book Review, April 14, 1991
If, for a few pages, this story of a woman’s liberation from her violent, seductive, alcoholic husband seems too familiar, just wait. With impeccable prose and rhythms as tense as any tango, Varley O’Connor interweaves Katha and Tommy Pinnell’s lives with those of their neighbors—three boys on their own, abandoned by their derelict, widowed father. The setting is the Hamptons, a collection of towns that, in summer, become home to some of New York’s wealthiest vacationers. The link between the Pinnells, who are renting a house near the ocean, and the sons of an impoverished local fisherman is the youngest of the three, 8-year-old Peter, who mows the Pinnells’ lawn. Missing his mother, having to follow rules his older brothers make up as they go along, he would easily understand Katha’s feeling that happiness “Didn’t seem so distant in time as it seemed, oddly, in space. It was as if she had moved far away to a place where she couldn’t speak the language and everything was strange, to another country, like China maybe.” Ms. O’Connor astutely portrays the social brutality that turned Tommy into a wife-beater, made Peter’s father flee and is quickly transforming the boys into thugs. Only Katha’s passivity remains puzzling. Although she’s from suburban Westchester, she might have walked straight out of a Jean Rhys novel. Nonetheless, her bond with Peter is entirely believable; it’s what makes Like China a first novel that soars.
--Joan K. Peters
Excerpt from the San Francisco Chronicle, April 17, 1991
O’Connor skillfully contrasts the world of a tormented, wealthy adult with that of a destitute, abandoned child. Katha and Peter form an unlikely friendship. They learn to trust and support each other in unexpected ways.
The drama heightens when Katha impulsively leaves the beach house, a symbol of her marriage, and flees to the home of a friend. It takes courage to confront the truth. “This person, this shadow, my husband, she thought, I’ve never known who he was... The times he threatened to throw me out the window, or strangle me, or the fists raised to my face or smashed mirrors, walls ...while I cried with fear, and despair because I couldn’t understand.”
Intertwined with Katha’s soul searching and destructive inclinations is Peter and his brothers' struggle to survive.
O’Connor has a sharp eye for detail. She captures the thoughts and dialogue of adolescent boys with sensitivity and humor. Smooth-talking Sam, the middle brother, who has a wild crush on Katha and fancies himself a ladies man, offers a friend some advice on the women of New York, a place where he’s never been: “...There’s the women. Beautiful women. Thousands and thousands of beautiful women. Go out in the streets you can pick ‘em like flowers because, I’m telling you, these women are desperate.”
In the end, new friendships ease the pain of family betrayal in this ambitious, well-written novel.