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Author finds repetition a way to get things just right

Writer Susan Straight admits her work — at least the execution of it — is boring.

“With dancing, you have a mirror and you can look at yourself,” Straight says. “Singing, you can hear yourself. Painting, you have something you can see, but writing — sometimes, you’re working on the same thing over and over again.”

That repetition, that constant hammering away at prose to make it fit just so, can result in transcendence when the writer is as gifted as Straight. In “Take One Candle Light a Room,” Straight’s seventh novel, she writes with a painterly eye, constructing a vivid work that travels back and forth between central California and Louisiana.

Straight used to wonder if she wrote too much about central California — she lives in Riverside, 60 miles east of Los Angeles, where she was born — but finds inspiration in the work of John Constable, the early 19th -century British artist who concentrated on painting landscapes of Dedham and Vale.

“I actually take great comfort in (his) paintings,” Straight says. “I love his six-foot landscapes where he paints the same place over and over again, but each time there’s something different.”

The story begins in Louisiana during the 1950s when four girls are sent westward because a serial rapist is terrorizing a black community. Fantine “FX” Antoine, a travel writer, is one of the legacies of the extended family that takes root in Sarrat, a small community that’s part of the larger city of Rio Seco. She has reinvented herself, distancing herself from the agrarian lifestyle (one of Riverside’s claims to fame is as the birthplace of the citrus industry in California) of her family. She is smart, in demand and rarely returns home.

But when her nephew, Victor, comes to her with two of his friends, she turns him away when he wants to stay overnight. It’s a decision she comes to regret when Victor and his friends become involved in a shooting that sends them to New Orleans, with Fantine and her father desperately trying to track them down. To make matters worse, the story is set in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina is bearing down on Louisiana.

One of the things Straight does via Fantine’s character is to illuminate how writers are perceived in their communities.

“I live a completely public life, lived in the same place all my life, all my neighbors and my family know I’m a writer, and no one cares,” says Straight, who is a single mother. “I got home last night, and no one asked me ‘Where were you?’, ‘What did you do?’ It was, ‘We really need the clothes washed.’ And for Fantine, doing what she does is embarrassing to her because of the way she was raised: ‘Why would you do that• Why would you write stories down• That’s a weird thing to do.’ In a sense, that is how my family feels about it. It’s an odd thing for me be down the hall making up stores about a woman named Fantine who has all these conflicts.”

Straight does draw from her own experiences to construct some of the scenarios in her book. A cross-country trip she took with her ex-husband was fodder for Fantine’s journey to Louisiana. A bi-racial nephew informs Victor’s character. And Fantine’s fascination with art mirrors her own.

At heart, the novel is an examination of race and the pressures to conform to a family legacy when one’s heart is elsewhere. Fantine’s travels are everything she desired as a child, but she has not found happiness as she approaches 40. Straight, as a lifelong resident of Riverside, seems to be her mirror image, the mother, the anonymous working person who goes to her day job as a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, then comes home to do laundry.

“I am someone who thinks more about what’s your place in the world, and when you travel around are you are kind reinventing yourself and floating,” Straight says. “I think that I’m the person who stayed. But maybe my fantasy might be that I was that person myself. Maybe Fantine does represent that to me.”

Additional Information:

Capsule review

Susan Straight’s ‘Take One Candle Light a Room’ is a novel that has many tributaries: It’s alternately a working class novel, a family portrait and an examination of race and class. But themes are pointless if not bound up in a compelling story. Straight, with flair and verve, seamlessly integrates these issues into a vivid narrative about a woman trying to find what matters most to her.

• Rege Behe


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