White Rabbit, Houghton Mifflin 1996, HarperCollins paperback 1997

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Description from the publisher:
Meet Ruth Caster Hubble. Feisty, cantankerous, and irreverent, she
is an old woman struggling to maintain order in a harebrained modern
world, and today is the last day of her life.
White Rabbit follows Ruth's progress minute by minute on this fateful
day as she copes with the breakdown of her household appliances,
her own vital organs, and her faith in romantic love. While Ruth
meanders her way through the day's routine, heartbreaking memories
surface that open windows into her past. She thinks of Hale, her
beloved first husband, who died in 1944; and hopeless Henry, her
steadfast husband of 36 years, whom she calls, with a mixture of
affection and contempt, a "boob." As the hours tick by, Ruth starts
seeing things. A furry white bunny keeps hiphopping across her field
of vision, announcing "Time," and Ruth has to wonder if hers is up.
Written with an understated elegance, warmth, and surprising
depth,White Rabbit heralds the arrival of a writer of formidable talent.

Two national book tours for White Rabbit, including bookstores and colleges in fifteen cities. In addition, guest of Susan Stamberg on National Public Radio and guest speaker at both the American Society on Aging and the Gerontological Society of America. (1996-1997)

Universally positive reviews, including:

BOOKS OF THE TIMES, New York Times: Ruth Hubble, Who Is 88 And Will Die Tonight
JAN. 25, 1996

By Kate Phillips 212 pages. Houghton Mifflin $21.95.

In "White Rabbit," her gifted first novel, Kate Phillips, now only 28, has achieved the unusual feat of imagining the final day in the life of a woman who is 88. This long life weighs on Ruth Caster Armstrong Hubble. As she reflects while awakening at 5:35 A.M. on Dec. 1, 1995, "even the most ordinary, unremarkable life would finally wear a person down -- the weight of marriage and children, the funerals and Christmases and Easters, the simple burdens of memory that kept accumulating and growing heavier with each tick of the clock -- all that could turn you into jelly, drag you right down into the grave."

Still, Ruth is feistily determined to bear the weight as she begins her claustrophobic daily routine in the Paradise  Lagoon condominium in Laguna Beach, Calif. She shares this home with Henry Hubble, her husband of 36 years, whom she regards with a mixture of affection and contempt as "a moron" and "a boob." She calls for Henry to fetch her regular breakfast of shredded wheat cakes, All-Bran pellets, banana and prunes and serve it to her in the bed from which he was banned as a condition of her marrying him. She checks the time on the two wristwatches she wears: one a diamond-studded timepiece given her by Hale Armstrong, her beloved first husband, who died in 1944; the other a cheapie digital watch she uses "as a gauge by which to adjust the precious watch from Hale," which loses several minutes a day, "sometimes hesitating at the half-hour, sometimes even clicking backward a notch or two."

She puts on her makeup; she sends Henry to the market to buy dinner; she gets out of bed; she goes to the bathroom; she dresses; she practices the piano; she goes out to mail a letter to one of her sons complaining about the book club that is mailing her too many selections and that she intends to sue. In fact Ruth's routine would grow oppressive for the reader were it not for the caustic wit with which she views herself and the feelings that keep overwhelming her, carrying her mind "like a corc on the flow of memory." As she waits for her breakfast in bed, her knees shape the green nylon of her sleeping bag "into an expanse of gently rolling hills where she might one day discover a world better than this one." It would be "a safe, happy place where she could stop clipping coupons and stop cutting  corners and stop nagging old Henry and stop dipping into Hale's veteran's pension, which she kept downtown at the Security Pacific."

When she puts on the necklace with the tiny silver locket containing her nitroglycerine pills, she remembers how Hale was suddenly "snatched up by a murderous disease." In the hospital as he was dying, he waved at the wall and said, " 'God, all that time, Ruthie. I never saw such a mess.' "
" 'Yes, yes,' she said."
" 'Just time and time.' "
"An hour later his eyelids fluttered."

Time may have been messed up for Hale, but for Ruth it grows increasingly precious. As the narrative of her day progresses in sections headed by the passing hours and minutes, Ruth becomes embroiled in the romantic problems of her granddaughter, Karen, whose runaway husband has just come back to her. At dinner with them, Ruth stares out of the window, her head throbbing. "Life, she thought, was so incredibly temporary. Nothing ever lasted, nobody ever stayed. But then she pictured Henry bumbling home across the highway with her groceries in his arms, so small from the vantage of this window."
"'You know, it's remarkable,' she heard herself saying.
'How we come to need each other. How we become each other.'"

Along with her memories of how love transformed itself from romance to realism, Ruth is afflicted by peculiar visions. The day of Ruth's narrative is "White Rabbit day," the first day of the month, when if the first words you say to anyone are "White Rabbit!" before he or she can say them to you, you get "a month's worth of good luck." But she also keeps seeing "odd white shapes" that "move about the room like the tracks of some living creature -- a fat, furry bunny jumping here and th're beneath a wizard's magic wand."

As these attacks get more severe throughout the day, they become associated in Ruth's mind with a "rabbity voice" that says things like "We're late, we're late! Important date!" They become associated with the frailty of Ruth's body: "A sudden shower of sparks crackled along her neck and spine. Like a lightning bolt, almost, and it sprayed out from the back of her skull and across her forehead and down toward her left shoulder, where it paused to gather new voltage, dividing into two halves and sizzling down her left arm and left leg. The world went null-white." Ruth recovers from this attack, but at the end of her day, after several shattering revelations to both her and the reader, she retires to her bed. "She unfastened her digital watch and put it aside. Then, staring straight ahead, she also took off Hale's wristwatch. She held it firmly, as if to contain time in the palm of her hand, th'n eased back slowly against her sit-up pillow."

In a gesture typical of this richly textured funny-sad story, Ruth is both holding on to time and finally letting the weight of time go.
A remarkable debut.

Los Angeles Times Book Review
An Eye for the Old : WHITE RABBIT,
By Kate Phillips (Houghton Mifflin:
$19.95; 213 pp.)
January 21, 1996|RICHARD EDER
It is the last day of an 88-year-old woman's life. Odd flashes, scraps of phrases, brief blackouts and a piercing sadness come and go as, still sprightly, she tries to get through her daily routines. And, as is said of the drowning, her past life replays itself. In "White Rabbit," her first novel, Kate Phillips treats this not unfamiliar fictional situation in an unusual way. Ruth Caster Hubble's recollections are not particularly interesting. Nor does the author tell them particularly well.

What holds us, though, is not Ruth's 88-year history. It is 88-year-old Ruth herself, and her banal, comic and ferocious course through her last day. We do not especially care who the ancient swimmer may once have been, nor even that the breakers are about to submerge her. We care about and we are astonished at her scrawny and determined dog paddle. When, as a novice police reporter, I saw a murder victim on a New York subway, for a few moments afterward there was no one in the weary, surly crowd on the platform who did not seem to be wearing a halo. They were alive. Ruth is formidably alive. The important thing about her deathbed, which she takes to only at the end of the day, is that it is her bed. Her outfits, carefully arranged in her closet, are her outfits. Her lunch sandwich is her sandwich, her afternoon walk is her walk and her annoyingly stubborn and distracted 88-year old  husband, Henry, is her husband.

Our entry into the different country Ruth so magisterially inhabits takes place at 5:25 in the morning when, as usual, she wakes up in her bed or, rather, on it. Ruth sleeps in a sleeping bag spread atop the bed's yellowed candlewick counterpane. That saves laundry, she calculates; a good part of "Rabbit" is taken up by Ruth's grave and comic battle to maintain the calculations by which she keeps going. There is the collection of carefully bagged scraps and greasy wrappers in her refrigerator. As rings mark a tree's age, the contents of the refrigerator can mark a person's. There is the elaborate ritual for setting out the garbage, the carefully drawn-up grocery list (one muffin, a small container of cole slaw--and four frozen turkey dinners because company is coming), which she will send out with Henry. He will get it almost right.

The flashbacks on that last day, some of them coming as fade-outs in the middle of a conversation, tell of a life whose disappointments become increasingly evident. There are repeated images of her first husband and one great love, Hale, and of Hale's best friend, Frank, who courted her after Hale died and whom she turned down because she disliked his womanizing. Only bit by bit are other parts of the picture revealed. Her memory works like a print developing, with the darker parts showing last. Hale, in fact, became fed up soon after they married and stayed away for months on business trips. The seductive Frank, on the other hand, may really have loved her; perhaps she should have taken a chance with him. Instead she settled in her mid-40s for the safe, well-to-do and utterly unappealing Henry and for a boring existence in a fenced, private-security community in Laguna Beach.

It is not an appealing portrait and the author, drawing it in terms of her character's faint foolishness and soap-opera recollections, occasionally traps her writing in some of these same qualities. It is a flaw of tactics, not talent. The vitality, shrewdness and even a touch of nobility (along with the cantankerousness and fog patches) of Ruth in her old age are rendered subtly and sometimes thrillingly. Something has burnt away the foliage, leaving branches that are bare though gnarled with crotchets. Phillips has too much class to pronounce whether this is life triumphing or death approaching; there is no demarcation.

In any event, the print goes through another stage of development. After the dark that takes shape after the light, a different light takes shape. Henry, the geriatric clown--he keeps dropping his few remaining loose teeth into his dinner--gradually emerges differently. His infuriating tactical deafness provides safety for Ruth's querulous manias; his feebly lustful passes are real love and keep her going through sheer irritation. He is a splendid character. So is Ruth. She has been plaguing her granddaughter, Karen, with far-fetched warnings about Karen's restless husband. There is a true instinct under the fog, though; Karen herself is uncertain. In two shrewd scenes that astonish without contrivance, Ruth finds the strength to comfort her granddaughter and to goad the husband into revealing both his fears and the decency that lies underneath. As for death, it comes with a jauntiness that moves us without incurring the least twinge of sentimentality. Ruth receives no special wisdom, just a dim foresight. At the end of the day, she climbs onto--still not into--her bed. Cloudily, she seems to hear the telephone ring. It is the ghost voice of Hale, the first husband and misconstrued love of her life.

There are no marriages in heaven, not even bad ones. It is my private suspicion, though, that Henry may eventually worm his way in by the sheer tensile stubbornness of one or two of his loosening teeth.