At times in life, we dive in, ready for action. At other times, often in transitional phases, we hang back and observe, browsing through possible lives and paths we might pursue.
The iconic summer after college, often marked by emotional and geographical change, can be a key time for browsing, even among the most targeted and ambitious of new graduates. For Thea, the protagonist in Susan Jackson Rodgers’s This Must Be the Place, the haze of the post-collegiate unknown takes her across the country and into new relationships, jobs, beds, and possible futures.
Thea’s drift out of college in California and toward a murky east coast destination can have a relatable feel to anyone who has left one finite experience and moved unsurely toward life’s next step. However, getting to know Thea as an authentic, relatable character rather than a mere archetype is a challenge, even for a willing and sympathetic reader.
Rodgers includes some truly delightful glimpses into Thea. Her pie rating system is endearing and enviable, and her love of love is hard to deride. However, such moments of intimate connection with Thea are too few, as she instead gorges herself and her reader on the details of the community she infiltrates during her summer stay in Kansas.
Too often as I read about the colorful cast of characters around her, I realized I had difficulty keeping them straight and little motivation to try. My interest in Thea was getting inside her head, to understand her and her experience of transition. Facing choices when the world (for good and for bad) is a blank slate is a unique moment in life, and experiencing that rite of passage with a substantial character can offer tremendous insight and satisfaction.
Instead, Rodgers trots names and agendas in all different directions, and Thea’s internal world comes and goes without much depth. She tells me of her depression, of her love for Jimmy, of her ambivalence about the choices she faces. But I never felt these things nor truly believed they were happening to Thea. She tells me what she does during depressive episodes; but she never tells me how she feels inside the darkness. She tells me she loves Jimmy, but I never felt what she felt. It’s safe to say that while I felt Thea’s pies, I didn’t feel her feelings.
I wish too, that her summer lover Jimmy could have known her better. When he tells her, “I’ve never met anyone like you,” I cocked my head to the side and gave that line a good think. When one character tells another character they are special, the reader should already have some inkling of the qualities that make a character noteworthy. Even after finishing her book, I don’t know Thea well enough to identify her as superlative in any way, and I was surprised Jimmy considered her so unique.
It did occur to me that as Rodgers invited me to browse through the characters, watching as if from a friendly distance, she was perhaps paralleling Thea’s experience for the reader. Thea likes the town and is a willing observer of goings on in this hamlet, but she ultimately knows this is a depot on the way to her real life. If I was a disengaged observer, perhaps it is because that’s Thea’s role as well.
Writing teachers make a cottage industry out of helping writers distinguish telling from showing. Rodgers is herself a writing teacher, and her skill with sentences, description, and narrative balance is obvious and enjoyable. I would welcome the opportunity to read her future work, with the caveat that within all that good writing, her next protagonist takes us along not just in her car and on her summer vacation, but inside her soul. That’s where the good fiction waits, and I believe that in Thea and in Rodgers, it’s there, waiting to find its path forward.