Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro
by Lisa Patton
St. Martin’s Press
August 2018, ISBN-13: 978-1250020666, Hardcover: 416 pages
The dominant social conflict in Rush is succinctly set out when a kind-hearted, middle-aged mother of a University of Mississippi freshman co-ed, exclaims: “Four hundred and thirty-eight college girls walking out on their sorority to take a stand for their beloved housekeeper who’s been denied a promotion because of her skin color? That’s big news.” Yet the road to this walk-out is a long time coming, and author Lisa Patton sets out the steps on the path and the characters who walk it in a heart-felt and fine-tuned story of the journey.
Rush is a great read, a gentle-hearted literary novel of the New South telling an eye-opening, entertaining story with a conscious. The book is impeccably well-written and deserves the accolades that are coming its way. Patton, herself a Deep South native, a University of Alabama graduate, and a former sorority member, writes the story with a careful eye for telling details, an honest ear for dialect and dialogue, an artistic talent for descriptive passages, and a voice ringing with authenticity. More than that—she tells the story with insight and compassion.
One of the main characters, Miss Pearl, an underpaid African-American house maid in a sorority house at “Old Miss,” butts heads with what she calls “generational prejudice” in a dramatic conflict with a powerful bigot. But this is not a violent book like so many which address racism in the South. No one is killed or lynched, though some of the insidious ways racism hurts us all are exposed in circumstances that are hard to ignore. There’s definitely a message in this book—but it doesn’t preach or knock the reader over the head. Rather, in the writers’ workshop mantra, it “shows, not tells” the way racism hurts us all.
Rush opens with Pearl’s voice explaining that she is the housekeeper at the Alpha Delta Beta sorority. She admits she does a “whole lot more, unrelated to housekeeping, but I’ll get to that later.” Pearl has one year of college, and she has ambitions to return to school and better herself. There is no man in her life, and she is in her forties. Her Aunt Fee (known to the sorority sisters as Miss Ophelia), with whom Pearl is very close, also works as the sorority cook. What happens to Aunt Fee as the story evolves is a catalyst for the more dramatic events in the story and shines light on an often-ignored way discrimination endangers people’s lives.
Pearl explains “there isn’t but one thing tethering me to a job where after twenty-five years of loyal service, I don’t get but $11.50 an hour. That one thing, the only thing, keeping me working here is the girls. I love them like they are my own daughters. And most of them love me right back.” Thus, Pearl is in many ways a quintessential second mother to her “girls.” Ultimately her faith in these young women is rewarded by their support of her. When her “girls” realize neither Pearl nor Miss Ophelia (or the other African-American employees of the sorority) receive health insurance or retirement, they organize to raise the funds to provide these benefits. In so doing, they risk the fury of the conniving, self-centered, and treacherousHouse Corp President of Alpha Delta Beta, a mean-natured racist named Lilith.
Lilith’s daughter, Annie Laurie, is a spoiled chip off the old block—or at least she seems so at first. Because Annie Laurie acts like a self-centered snob, a snide-voiced slob, and perhaps a budding alcoholic, none of the other girls like her. When she doesn’t get chosen for the Alpha Delta Beta sorority, her mother Lilith pulls a fast one, illegally substituting Annie Laurie for a much more deserving and popular student, petite redhaired Cali.
Of course, Cali is crushed when she isn’t accepted into Alpha Delta Beta, but she knew she was a long-shot. Cali doesn’t come from the “pedigreed” or wealthy background many (most?) of the sorority girls do, yet she had an ardent dream of becoming a sorority sister despite the financial constraints, her lack of references, and her lack of “pedigree.” By using Cali—who was raised by her grandparents because her mother is a drug addict who abandoned her—to represent the non-stereotypical sorority girl, Patton addresses some of the snobbery and social exclusivity inherent in the Greek system on campuses. But the ways in which other sorority sisters and a few mothers support Cali in her bid to join Alpha Delta Beta suggest this emphasis on “pedigree” could be evolving.
Just as Patton does not shy away from social snobbery, she does not shy away from other problems relating to sororities—there’s binge drinking, cattiness, vanity, young women who never quite understand their sense of entitlement is self-centered and offensive, and extravagant spending of their parents’ money without any apparent awareness of the profligacy involved.
Yet, at the same time Rush admits to the negatives, the book emphasizes the good qualities of life in a sorority. The bonds of friendship—of sisterhood—are compelling positives, just as is the organized role of community service. Rush makes clear that sororities are service-oriented, providing a safe place for the students to live, study, eat, and mature and not just party houses.
Yet, the strongest positives about the sorority, of course, are the young women themselves. Among the co-eds featured in Rush, Cali might be almost too good to believe as a freshman student who wants to change the world, and for the better. That she will triumph over the falsified sorority rejection and transcend her own insecurities is clear by the nature of her character, but the suspense in the novel is how she prevails—and with who’s help.
Cali’s best friend Ellie is equally charming and high-minded, though her social and economic status surpass Cali’s. Both girls are willing to go out on a limb to help Pearl, and to help other young women in their dorm. They don’t binge drink or smoke pot, and they study and work hard. In contrast, Annie Laurie is their foil, just as Annie Laurie’s mother Lilith is the book’s equally spoiled and manipulative villainess. Yet Cali and Ellie rescue Annie Laurie not once, but at least twice.
Annie Laurie and her mother make a cruel mess of things with Pearl, Cali, and with the sorority—and Ellie and Cali and a handful of others must fix these messes. Jasmine, Cali’s African-American dorm roommate, will play a strong positive role in the fix, though she shuns the sorority. And Ellie’s mother meddles and helps the young women, stands up to Lilith, and fortifies her bonds with husband and daughter after she faces some hard truths about herself.
Rush can be read as a Young Adult/coming of age novel, as Cali, Ellie, Annie Laurie, Jasmine and others struggle with the inherent conflicts of being young, being newly away from home for the first time, and finding their way as university students. In a traditional YA fashion, the young women confront conflicts, grow, and learn. In other words, they mature.
The social commentary and the YA angles of Rush are also enhanced by the inspirational quality of the novel. The book shares faith in a positive, non-preachy way. Pearl and Aunt Fee draw strength from their beliefs at the most trying moments facing them in the book (and there are many).
Pearl risks being typecast as the goodhearted, long suffering African-American female who takes care of white children, a modern-day Mammy of sorts. In less talented hands, Pearl might well have become that stereotype, but Lisa Patton gives Pearl such depth and power that she rises above any cliché. The young women might have the fun parts of the story, but Pearl is the moving force, the moral compass, and is portrayed as a well-developed, multi-faceted, prideful (even stubborn) woman of strength and principle. And just as the young students strive to grow toward their potential, so does Pearl.
This is a charming book, brimming with insider information on sorority life, the process of rush, and modern campus life, which confronts modern social issues while telling a riveting story. Lisa Patton is to be congratulated on writing a moving, insightful book. Engrossing and poignant, Rush is a well told story which raises thoughtful questions even as it entertains.
About the reviewer: Claire Hamner Matturro is an honors graduate of The University of Alabama Law School and she became the first female partner in a prestigious Sarasota, Florida law firm. After a decade of lawyering, Claire taught at Florida State University College of Law and spent one long, cold winter as a visiting legal writing professor at the University of Oregon. Her books are: Skinny-Dipping (2004) (a BookSense pick, Romantic Times’ Best First Mystery, and nominated for a Barry Award); Wildcat Wine(2005) (nominated for a Georgia Writer of the Year Award); Bone Valley(2006) and Sweetheart Deal (2007) (winner of Romantic Times’ Toby Bromberg Award for Most Humorous Mystery), all published by William Morrow, and Trouble in Tallahassee (2018 KaliOka Press). Coming in Spring of 2019: Privilege (Moonshine Cove), a steamy legal thriller noir set on the Gulf coast of Florida. She recently finished polishing Wayward Girls–a manuscript she co-wrote with Dr. Penny Koepsel–and awaits the happy news when her agent, the great, fun, funny, and radically energetic Liza Fleissig, places it with the right publisher. Follow her at http://www.clairematturro.com and https://www.facebook.com/authorclairematturro