I met Julianna at the 2000 Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. We've kept in touch through the years. Julianna is an inspiration; she is a publishing whiz, many novels over the past 13 years, a professor at FSU, and a mother and wife. Above everything else, she is just a damn good soul.
In Thomas’ debut coming-of-age novel, a liberal, headstrong girl lives her life in the conservative South.
Ardor is a young woman determined to live whatever way she pleases. As readers learn through various flashbacks, her childhood home broke when her father ran off with another woman, sending her mother into a series of vacant love affairs that distracted her from her children. The one bright spot in Ardor’s life was her beloved older brother, who served as both corrupter and protector, but even his presence is eventually snatched away. Ardor remains fierce, though, and doesn’t let tragedy stop her from going about her life. She’s well-liked and can make friends with relative ease. She makes lovers with relative ease, too. Ardor has had plenty of flings throughout her young life, causing many in her community to label her a slut, but she takes it all in stride. She never lets the watchful eyes of others stop her from doing what she wants, whether it’s kissing another woman in a committed relationship or sleeping with a married man. With such a long list of vices, it’s little wonder that she’s drawn to nonjudgmental people. Ardor is nonjudgmental herself—unless, of course, someone hurts her or happens to have a value system stricter than hers, in which case, nothing can stop her wrath. She’s not above chewing someone out or lighting a lawn on fire. Readers with a rigid value system may find Ardor’s attitude difficult to swallow at first, but if they can adjust, they’ll be rewarded with a realistic story about the joys and pains of growing up. Along the way, Ardor falls into a typical trap: failing to acknowledge her own judgmental tendencies. Still, it’s a human, realistic fault to have, especially for young people, which highlights the novel’s well-developed coming-of-age motif. Like many young people, Ardor knows everything and lives for the moment. For all the fun she has, however, her life remains quite empty. The vignettes that form the novel’s narrative are somewhat nonchronological, which draws attention to the haphazard, scattered history of lovers who meant nothing. Oddly enough, it’s in the moments she experiences loss that her life seems to hold the most water.
A thoughtful, realistic portrait of uncompromising femininity. (Kirkus Reviews)
Star Rating: 4 out of 5
Composed of short vignettes depicting both momentous and everyday events in the life of a young Alabaman woman named Ardor, this is not your typical narrative. Rather than tell us a story about Ardor, Thomas offers the reader brief glimpses that, woven together, create an idea about Ardor. The story pieces act as a quilt, each piece providing a unique perspective. Though the pieces are disjointed, and transitioning from one to another creates momentary confusion while the reader settles in to the new time period, they fit snugly together to tell of a fascinating woman.
Abandoned by her dad (though not without a fight) when she was a teenager, Ardor has unusual ideas about love. Fiercely anti-monogamous, she has various lovers throughout the book, though only two that are lasting. Wade is her boyfriend: steady and caring, but boring. Lew is her former professor who is in an open marriage. Ardor’s time with Lew is passionate, intense, and impossible to maintain. There is also an intriguing story about a lesbian relationship. However, after seeing the pair declare their love, we never see them together again.
Ardor’s most endearing qualities come out in her interactions with friends and family. A few scenes taking place in a nursing home are particularly touching, and several beautiful moments are created when Ardor comforts friends who have been burned by love. Throughout the story, she is compassionate and loving, but she is never perfect. All of the characters are deeply flawed and therefore feel real. Even the characters that appear for only a minute are given personalities and quirks. With only one, unfortunately offensive, exception, all of the characters are treated as unique, worthy people despite their differences.
In telling a story about one woman, James Ladd Thomas has created an entire town filled with lovably imperfect people, and he has created a story about the importance of trying new things, making mistakes, being honest, and always growing. (San Francisco Book Review)