There's no zeal like a convert's, they say, and this new relationship novel by East Coast-reared, New Mexico-transplant Sharon Niederman reads like a Land of Enchantment/Department of Tourism/Saw the Light testimonial. Which, in this case, may not be altogether a bad thing.
Although this is Niederman's debut novel, it's hardly her first publication. She had considerable experience in New York--public relations, magazine editing, textbook ghostwriting--before she came West, and since then has racked up some serious notches on her freelance belt. She's written reviews, essays, opinion and travel pieces for Denver, Boston and New York newspapers; she's written for three papers in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. She's also published a half-dozen nonfiction books.
It's no surprise that the central character in her first work of fiction is a journalist. That her prose is deft and confident should be no surprise, either.
Return to Abo opens with San Francisco Chronicle investigative reporter Maggie Chilton picking up the phone while driving in rush-hour traffic. Calling her is Ramona, a young woman Maggie featured in an article on domestic violence. Both from New Mexico, they established a friendship in the shelter where Maggie had gone undercover. Though that stretched Maggie's objectivity, she couldn't resist Ramona and her 6-year-old son. On the phone, Ramona screams for help, but by the time both Maggie and the police reach her, she and her son have been murdered.
We next see Maggie 10 months later. Thinking that her article contributed to these deaths, she has been unable to work since. When she is suddenly called to New Mexico for a funeral, Maggie's other issues materialize. Her once-powerful mother, Lucy, stingy with emotion and strong in body and spirit, has suffered a stroke, but still must manage a substantial ranch. Her 12-year-old daughter, Hannah--a wannabe punk with purple hair--has chosen to go live with Maggie's recent ex-husband and his young wife. And Maggie immediately runs into the source of an adulthood-long hurt: her childhood best friend who married Maggie's boyfriend when Maggie was off at college.
Action gets under way when Lucy suffers a second stoke and actually needs Maggie, and Hannah gets suspended from school in Washington, D.C., and heads to the ranch. That former boyfriend--now the town mayor--and former best friend have been divorced now for a couple of years. A slick young Texas guy sniffing around to turn ranch land into housing developments provides a useful complication.
Niederman's writing is clean; her pacing is unflagging, and her attitude is often refreshingly unsticky toward what could be saccharine emotional interaction.
Her characters are appealing in a romance-in-the Southwest fashion. Widowed Lucy comes from homesteading stock. She takes pride in having maintained the 160 acres and herds of cattle with just a hired hand, in shooting rattlesnakes dead and in staying sharp enough in old age to play a mean game of bridge.
Niederman's secondary characters are pretty stock-eccentric, but likable: Lorraine, the unreserved café owner, has a big heart and outrageous attire (middle-aged plump in corkscrew curls and pink stretch pants and ballet slippers); Ivy, Maggie's ebullient old high school English teacher with the long purple scarf, now publishes the town paper.
One nice touch is the group of Lucy's bridge-playing friends, the Wednesday Club. Made up of ranch women who have known each other all their lives--smart, tough women who could both sit a horse and don a string of pearls--the club's members nibble at each other's best recipes, kibitz about men and other necessary evils, play smart cards and act as a kind of Greek chorus. The only point-of-view shifts Niederman makes from Maggie are to the Wednesday Club, and they always serve up some knowing commentary.
Niederman's strength doesn't lie in plotting, so the story ends up being ploddingly predictable. What she does well is to create a setting that lives up to Maggie's longing to regain a sense of place. She succeeds in weaving her themes of the value of friendship, of making rather than avoiding connections, and of the importance of roots, through her depiction of this dusty section of New Mexico:
"Seeing this place again--that enormous, free sky alive with constant motion, arching over empty space dotted with mysterious wreckage of the past--touched her heart and imagination."
Later, "[e]mpty quiet spaces had replaced constant noise and rushing crowds, as the expanses of sky and land meshed with the contours of her heart. The raw beauty of the land living for its own purpose seemed, at this moment, sufficient."
And that's sufficient to make Return to Abo a pleasing read.