January 30, 1989 12:00 PM

by Vicki Covington

This accomplished first novel set mainly in Alabama tells the story of an extended family. There is Cal Gaines, a left-leaning urban preacher whose involvement with the Sanctuary Movement and growing distance from the fundamentalist branch of his church leads to a run for Congress. He and his wife, Mary Ellen, a Natalie Wood look-alike, are a perfect team—photogenic, enlightened, supportive and understanding (but not tediously so) and always dressed in earth tones. As their adopted teenage daughter, Whitney, observes, “They always looked dressed for a safari.” When Cal preaches to his congregation, Mary Ellen translates into American Sign Language. “They always said something nice about people from other countries or cultures. It was real predictable,” notes the distant Whitney, who has fully mastered the role of minister’s daughter. She wears sweet dresses and has the Sunday smile down pat. (“In the Sunday smile you let your face open so that the light flows. You want people to have the sensation of heavenly sunshine—teeth and all.”) She knows how to do what her mother describes as “active listening.” “Being Cal’s daughter, she had learned to play the part. If there was one thing she could do well, it was play the part.” The script becomes more complicated when Cal decides to run for Congress and media attention pushes Whitney to search for her biological parents. There’s no response from her birth mother, but Whitney does locate her father, Sam, a cartoonist who lives in New York with his lover, Aaron, and who is now forced to confront his past and his demons. What Covington does so well is pull back the camera to show the impact of the search—not just how it affects Whitney or Sam but how it affects Aaron, how it affects Eva, Sam’s widowed mother who “had gradually come to understand that she’d never have grandchildren—unless, of course, there was a way for two men to adopt.” There is a terrific vividness to the secondary characters in this novel: Francy, the anorexic church secretary, Nat, the campaign manager who’s inexorably drawn to Whitney, Eva, who before her husband’s suicide “recalled herself as having been kind of bewildered and uneasy with the business of living…she was prone to a kind of irrational, magical thinking—like if she didn’t stack the linens in a certain way it might cause some unforeseen accident to occur. Or, if she used one towel and not the other, it might hurt the other’s feelings.” But Covington never brings her lead characters into sharp enough focus, never gives the reader a clear sense either of their relationship or how Mary Ellen and Cal feel about Whitney’s search for her roots. Even so, Gathering Home is imbued with a warmth and humanity that make one eager for Covington’s next book. (Simon and Schuster, $17.95)

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