In debut novel, it's all a matter of choices

'Souvenir" is the title of Raleigh resident Therese Fowler's capable debut novel, but I would've called it "Meg's Choice."

The central conflict in the novel involves Meg Powell's decision to marry for money rather than love, in order to save her parents' farm in Central Florida.

At 21, Meg is in love with childhood friend Carson McKay, who has built on his parents' neighboring farm a hideaway where he and Meg meet. They seem destined to be together.

But Meg's parents are deeply in debt, and when Brian Hamilton, son of a wealthy local banker, rides in to rescue her parents in exchange for marrying Meg, Meg reluctantly agrees to the match.

It is an age-old premise, the idea that a woman must sacrifice her future for an ancestral plot of land. Fowler is banking on her readers loving an old-fashioned melodrama with an updated sensibility.

Most of the action takes place nearly two decades after Meg's choice. She has become an obstetrician, married Brian and had a daughter, Savannah, who is nearly 16. Guitarist Carson has become a rock star and is on the verge of marrying a sexy surfer. Ironically, if Meg had chosen to marry Carson anyway, they could have saved the farm -- or bought it back -- many times over.

Brian, now a successful executive, has lost interest in Meg and Savannah, and Meg spends idle moments wondering "what if."

In the meantime, Savannah is considering choices of her own. A good kid left too much on her own, Savannah sets up a personal Web page and begins chatting with an older guy who pays her a lot of attention. This is the most visibly updated part of the story, and it will chill parents who wonder what their children can get into online. A lot, it turns out.

Savannah's misadventures with the sleazy Kyle provide much of the action in the book, as Meg occupies herself with memory as she reads her mother's old journal. She also faces an unexpected diagnosis for a curious weakening in her arm: ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease, which attacks the nervous system and progressively breaks down one's ability to move or act. ALS leads to paralysis and death, and there is no known cure.

The disease is a metaphor for what has happened to Meg's life. Modern American suburban life can become paralyzing, as appearances, expectations and recriminations multiply to the point where it seems nothing can change without unendurable shame, a kind of slow death.

Meg now faces a final choice about her disease: Should she wait it out in hopes of a miracle cure and suffer through horrible, progressive debilitation? Or is there some other way out, a redemption of sorts?

It is clear that Fowler has worked at her craft -- she is a graduate of N.C. State's Master of Fine Arts program -- and has taken to heart the lessons of storytelling, most notably that place and particularity matter.

I especially liked the match of description to mood in the following passage, mirroring the difficulty of Meg's choices in this book: "The road came to a T and she slowed the car, then stopped, unable to decide which way to go next. She needed some road signs ... with arrows pointing the way to 'Salvation' or 'Cure' or 'Do-Over.' What she saw, though, was tall grasses and shocked, barren, limbless trees reaching skyward. A toppled jug that once held radiator fluid. The carcass of a washing machine, a few yards away."

Fowler could have worked harder on her male characters. Brian never becomes human; Carson remains strangely passive despite his success in music, which must have taken a huge amount of initiative. And Clay, Meg's brief adulterous love interest, seems as inert as his name.

Enough with the revelations. Those of us who live for a good melodrama will want to go out and buy the book right now -- and consider for ourselves Fowler's literary choices.

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