by Kaylie Jones
The narrator of this short, engaging novel is Channe, daughter of William Willis, a successful American writer. Channe begins her story in the ’60s; she is 4, and the Willises are living in Paris. “Your mother won’t live anywhere in America but New York City,” William tells his children, “and I can’t write in New York. There’s too much going on and it’s too much fun.”
The first half of A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries traces the Willis household’s routines, its joys and woes after the adoption of a French boy (renamed Billy), and Channe’s escapades with her new brother in their Paris schools. If this seems slight, Channe is perceptive, and effortlessly entertaining.
When Channe is 15, her father suffers an attack of congestive heart failure, his heart having been scarred by a World War II case of malaria. Not trusting French doctors, the family returns to the United States and a Long Island farmhouse. And now A Soldier’s Daughter takes on fresh power.
Jones may have intended, as the jacket copy suggests, that the novel explore “the complex and volatile relationship between a brother and sister.” (There is a subplot, resolved in a flagrantly unsatisfactory conclusion, about the truth of Billy’s adoption.)
With the return to America, however, the brother-sister theme is overwhelmed by the story of Channe and her father. William Willis has long known that his time may be short, and the needs of his family have been subordinated to his work. But on Long Island, as he tries to complete a major novel about the war, he manifests a saving grace.
The unhappy teenage Channe has an affair with a 29-year-old carpenter, then runs wild. (“I had sex with a basketball player, a surfer, a farmer’s son, and a boy who worked in his father’s auto body shop.”) Despairing, she turns to her father, whose warmth and imaginative comforting provide the book’s most memorable scenes.
This is Jones’s third novel. Of her family history, the book jacket tells only that her dad was author James Jones (From Here to Eternity, Some Came Running). He lived in France, drank hard and died of heart failure after returning to the U.S. How else is A Soldier’s Daughter the story of James and Kaylie Jones? We don’t need to know. Whatever the autobiographical considerations, this daughter has done herself proud as a writer, and honored her father as well. (Bantam, $19.95; $7.95 paper)