Kate Vaiden by Reynolds Price is a first-person narrative of the unsettled life of Kate Vaiden. The novel opens with Kate in her late fifties. She takes us back in time, recalling her turbulent life beginning at the age of eleven when she loses both her parents to a murder-suicide. Kate is then raised in a loving environment by her aunt and uncle in the small town of Macon, North Carolina.
Kate has her first sexual encounter with a young man who later dies in a military training camp during the Vietnam war. Not long after, she runs away to live with her uncle and his friend, gets pregnant at the age of 16, and runs away again. And so begins a series of events in which Kate ricochets from one attachment to another, runs away for no apparent reason, immerses herself in another attachment only to run away again. Meanwhile, she has abandoned her baby infant with her aunt and doesn’t consider contacting her son until he is in his mid-thirties when she is in her late fifties having received a diagnosis for cervical cancer.
Kate drifts aimlessly from one situation to another. And yet wherever she lands, she seems to find men who are attracted to her and who desire her company. She flees from any sort of commitment but doesn’t provide a plausible explanation for doing so, leaving the reader baffled and frustrated at her behavior. She emerges as an unlikable, selfish, ungrateful, and self-absorbed character. Her constant running away and haphazard choices in life make it hard to sympathize with her. She is an aimless drifter, bolting whenever she whiffs a relationship getting too close for comfort.
Now that she is middle-aged, now that she is staring cancer in the face, she tries to reconnect with people in her past who loved her and showed her kindnesses only to discover they have all since died: her aunt and uncle who took her in when she was orphaned and their neighbor, Fob, who gifted her a horse when she was a teenager. She plans to reconnect with her son. But the belated emergence of concern for people in her past, people she had abandoned for over thirty-five years, appears self-serving and underlines her selfishness. It all seems too little, too late.
The novel was okay but not something I would necessarily recommend.