Beverly Lowry left her native Tennessee for Texas in the seventies, taught at the University of Houston, and plunged into the state’s literary scene. The Perfect Sonya (1987), her best novel during this period, traces the ups and downs of protagonist Pauline Terry and her mostly disappointing experiences with men. The plot intermixes past and present in a constant back-and-forth between childhood and maturity, New York and Texas.
As a child growing up in Baytown, Pauline had to endure the psychological—and, on at least one occasion, sexual—abuse of a menacing father she remembers as “the big man, Tex, the Iron Duke.” After moving to New York to become an actress, Pauline dates a succession of loser boyfriends and marries an Italian playwright who is as controlling as her father. Her career never really takes off (she received her best notices as “the perfect Sonya” for her role in Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya), so she spices up her life by having a string of affairs.
Ambivalent about nearly everything, she is pulled back to Texas after her father suffers a heart attack. During a prolonged stay in Austin, she visits a former teacher named Will Hand, an uncle by marriage who lives on a ranchette east of San Marcos, a town Lowry describes as “the poor man’s Cancún.” (I’ve been to Cancún, by the way, and San Marcos is no Cancún. In my experience, Texas local color can stand only a limited amount of product enhancement.) Easily the most intriguing character in the book, Will is a dead-ringer for Texas author John Graves. He is rustic to the core, drives a beat-up old pickup, prefers dogs to cats, has a bum eye, and has written a “slim book, a combination myth and personal essay called The Legend of Snake Creek.” Like Graves’s Goodbye to a River, it has made Hand a “minor cult figure” among “environmentalists and young people: hippies, flower children, back-to-the-land romantics.”
Pauline and Will make love several times, a testimony to Will’s potency at a doddering 60 compared with Pauline’s randy 32. In the area of “too much information,” the reader learns that “his erection was not as firm as a younger man’s but that never mattered as much as men thought.” Uncertain if they have a future together, she returns to her husband in New York but discovers that she is pregnant. An abortion and a divorce follow in short order. Like all good New Yorkers, Pauline continues to search for understanding by going to a shrink; he is named, of all things, Russell Loving.
She also continues her shuttle diplomacy between New York and Texas and visits Will one last time. Pauline displays a newfound self-sufficiency in deciding not to sleep with him this time around and at novel’s end, she prepares to head back to New York, full of hope, for a jazzy new role in an Off-Broadway play.