Julia Reed's The House on First Street is distinguished by its elegance and wittiness, as well as its poignancy and civic-mindedness. Told by a 40-something woman of privilege, one who could afford a TV-watching companion for her cat while Reed led a split existence between the Big Apple and the Big Easy, she is ultimately a woman without any true home until she moves permanently to New Orleans and finds, first, true love, and then, the city of her heart in ruins.
Reed, a contributing editor to both Newsweek and Vogue, was born in what was the wealthiest, most urbane city in the Mississippi Delta. Greenville, also the native ground of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy, was, like its larger, more sophisticated sister to the south, nearly destroyed by the Mississippi River flood of 1927. Thus it's in keeping that a beautiful but decaying New Orleans house owned by another Percy becomes home to Reed and her new husband just weeks before Katrina hits.
The house remains a wreck, though largely unscathed by Katrina, and the horrors of home renovation - and the devastation wreaked elsewhere in the city - are almost a match for Reed's descriptions of the glorious, spiritual delights of food. She chronicles with obvious glee the progressively better meals she manages to offer an entire contingent of Oklahoma National Guardsmen stationed down the block to fend off looters at a time when almost no city stores are open and no city, state, local or federal officials are to be seen.
Despite Reed's self-deprecating generosity, also seen in her loving commitment to both new and lifelong friends, to neighbors, to various people who have worked for her, and to an improbably sweet-natured crackhead she tries again and again to redeem, Reed ensures that we do not mistake her for Mother Teresa. The tantrums she throws at contractors attract neighbors and passing cars; she lapses into what she later concedes is a "Marie Antoinette moment" while she cleans out the rotted contents of her (predictably) stuffed refrigerator after 12 electricity-free days; and her scorn for then-Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco and Nagin practically curls the pages.
Some readers will be tempted to condemn The House on First Street as trivial or paternalistic in comparison to Montana-Leblanc's book. But Reed marries, and finds her place in New Orleans, to earn what Montana-Leblanc possesses at the beginning and end of her tale: a family and roots too deep for any hurricane to destroy, despite the anger and tears and grievous loss wrought by our country's greatest naturaldisaster.
Diann Blakely's third poetry collection, Cities of Flesh and the Dead, to be published this fall by Elixir Press, takes its title from a work set in New Orleans.