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The latest novel by Susan Rebecca White, “A Soft Place to Land,” takes place primarily in Atlanta and San Francisco. Ruthie, 12, and Julia,16, are loving half-sisters whose lives are shattered when their parents, Naomi and Phil Harrison, are killed in a small-plane crash over the Grand Canyon.
The story follows the sisters and their troubled relationship from the time of the accident in 1993 through to the present.
By the unusual terms of the will, the sisters are separated. Ruthie goes to live with a wealthy aunt and uncle in San Francisco, while Julia is sent to live with her biological father and fundamentalist stepmother in a rural Virginia town. The places have a very profound impact on who each sister will become.
The differences in the families are great. Ruthie feels free and loved in her aunt’s home while Julia contends with a bitter stepmother and a passive father. Separated by such great physical and cultural distances, the sisters grow apart as they grow older, enter college and begin to find adult success. Ruthie begins a career as a pastry chef, and Julia writes her first memoir, in which she unknowingly betrays her sister, creating even more distance between them. Another defining moment in their lives eventually brings them back together.
The author’s descriptions of Atlanta and San Francisco are vivid and realistic. Her writing speaks to the fact that the author grew up in Atlanta and currently lives there. As the author stated in a Simon and Shuster interview, she returned to San Francisco to reconnect with the feel of that city and to do research at the public library. Ms. White says she wanted to make sure her writing accurately described the way San Francisco would have been 15 years ago.
The issues of loss, change and sibling relationships are the major themes in this poignant novel.