Good characters are like old friends, and turning the last page of their story can be the definition of bittersweet: so glad you met them, so sad to see them go. How fortunate, then, that Kaye Gibbons has finally written a sequel to her 1987 debut novel, Ellen Foster, now a contemporary classic. The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster (Harcourt, 224 pp.), is as rich and satisfying as the original but also stands on its own: having read the first isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying the second.
In the first book, Ellen Foster is a child grief-stricken over her mother’s death and shamefully neglected by her father. With his death, she is shuffled from caregiver to caregiver until she finally lands at the foster home run by wise and understanding Laura, where she lives out what she later calls “the orphan American dream.”
The Life All Around Me picks up several years later, when Ellen is 15. Whip-smart and imaginative as ever, she has her sights set on Harvard University. How she gets there (and also finds closure concerning her past) is what drives the narrative, but this novel, like its predecessor, is far more about voice than story. Ellen is the epitome of what teachers would describe as both “too smart for her own good” and a “joy to teach.” In a precocious letter to the president of Harvard, for example, she explains, “One of my mottoes is that nothing you think, feel, or do should be watered down.” And live it she does.
Any anxiety Ellen feels about her situation is tempered with a good dose of humor, however unintentional. “I went around like a person wearing the wrong size shoes,” she says. “Willing to cut toes off or manage with some broken to keep carrying what my mother did and still walk with a posture that wouldn’t draw attention.... You can do better, but there never seems to be the proper moment to halt everything and get the shoes off and go on forward, so you push on with working.”
The phenomenal success of Ellen Foster must have made writing a sequel hard to resist: in 1998, it was an Oprah book club pick and a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie; today it’s a staple of virtually every high school reading list. But this is not a book written to cash in on the protagonist’s name recognition. Gibbons gives not only Ellen but each of her characters a voice that is whole and distinct. No matter the eccentricity, she shows everyone a tender respect, from sweet-natured and cognitively disabled Starletta to Ellen’s incorrigibly charming best friend Stuart. Quirky yet never contrived, there’s honesty here and it shows, making The Life All Around Me a surprise and a delight.