So Long As We’re Together by Glenda Burgess

Reviewed by Jim Eaton

The first thing that comes to mind here is, add a star or maybe two if you’re a fan of country music. I happen to be, very much so, such a fan. Raised on Cash, Cline, Willie, Merle, Don Williams, Conway Twitty, and then them nineties with Strait, Black, Travis, Whitley…you get it. Or maybe you don’t, and if you don’t, I find myself wondering how this book would read to you. Seems to me people have some very strong feelings about country: love, hate, hate more.

But we cannot know what we cannot know, and I can only review the text as me, so to speak. The more nods to Merle and friends, the better. Alan Jackson and Reba too. I enjoyed the Pet Shop Boys reference too, and could even hear them sing “what have I done to deserve this” as Mama Donna flings their cd into oblivion during one of the many flashbacky scenes included in Burgess’ novel.

So Long As We’re Together is a tale having mostly to do with closure. There’s romance, and some mystery, and some ugly stuff I wasn’t entirely sure belonged (particularly when ugly is still hanging around towards the end of the book, menacingly menacing but then just…disappearing). And there’s old friends and professional rivalry and lamentation about roads not taken. But ultimately, this yarn is about closure and the strength its manifestation imbues on the bearer.

I am not a massive fan of first person narrator, having been schooled in the bludgeoning such characters can deliver by way of their oft-touted unreliability. I believe an author binds herself up in choosing the first person because either she must dive full-fledged into the doubts and debacles of that unreliability (a la Dostoevsky), or she must somehow justify the depth and breadth of her character’s observations and insights (a la Nabokov). The former is a difficult choice of course but the latter often borders on impossible.

That said, Burgess pulls it off nicely, asides assigned to an off-hand knowledge of Gerard Manley Hopkins notwithstanding (to me it seems more likely that Burgess, and not Marley Stone, would love Hopkins, he of the morning’s morning rover). How a Welsh monk would embrace Hank Sr, I cannot say, nor could Hank or the monk, I imagine. Marley is nonetheless both reliable and well-written, and we come to know her quite well. We suffer with her, we make mistakes with her, we fear for her, we sing with her (if we know the words). Most importantly, we root for her. And we are glad of the path she selects when all the smoke clears and the odd contents of coffee cans and Chinese vases are dispensed with.

Burgess displays a clear and present love of language in her writing, as well as a passionate affinity for exploring the tenets of human bonds. She often, and I very much appreciated this quality, restrained in her expression; she often eschewed the obvious and tried with much success to splice in the grays that exist between real people. Marley is strong. Marley seems not to realize or understand this initially but in facing the various elements of her unresolved past, she not only becomes familiar with her own strength but also, in full possession of it. Her experiences dovetail with her burgeoning resolve, and so to me there is a sense here of a continuation…of perhaps Kate Chopin’s seminal novella.
The voice of the lake has taken someone from Marley but she herself embraces its song, and emerges more complete, and ready, it would seem, for what remains of her quite promising life.

Dug the phrase “this strange and tender quietude of an unguarded world.” Burgess has the heart of a poet but it shines most brightly in her prose as opposed to her lyrics or poetry. Intriguing.

She also uses descriptors of place, the senses, color, weather, and time well. I found her decision to skip the use of quotation marks very distracting…for one page. And then, not at all. Here is a writer who has a great book in her. I will not say that, though I did enjoy the read, So Long As We’re Together is that book. It has elements of “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Steel Magnolias” and maybe a touch of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robichaux series going on what with its meandering storyline and focus as much on people as plot, yet there is some element missing. What that is, I could not say without the inclusion of multiple spoilers. What I can say is, read this. Add those stars if you’re country. Add another if strong female leads who kick a little metaphorical ass and find long-sought answers are your bag.

This book was a pleasure to read and review. Me, I’ll look forward to her next one, and hope she has the grace to include a Townes Van Zandt reference or two in there.

Now I have to step away from the keyboard and either work on my terrible barre chords or buy that lake cabin I’ve wanted forever.