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Posts Tagged ‘Southern fiction’

I’m on summer vacation, and it’s lovely, with family weddings, old friends, South Carolina peaches, and books, books, books.

Oh, The Essex Serpent (HarperCollins, digital galley). I first was captivated by the stunning cover with its intricate William Morris-inspired design, then seduced by the contents. Sarah Perry’s sweeping Victorian tale with its Gothic shadings reminded me of John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman by way of A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Angels and Insects. Also Bronte, Hardy, Dickens, Stoker. And yet this novel of ideas, of science and superstition, love and friendship, is also imaginative and original.

In 1893 London, Cora Seaborne makes for an unconventional 19th-century heroine, a well-off widow whose independent spirit and intellectual curiosity were suppressed by an abusive older husband. Now she gleefully exchanges widow’s weeds for a man’s tweed coat and boots, the better for tramping the marshy Essex coast in search of fossils. She’s also intrigued by rumors of the return of the Essex Serpent, a mythical winged beast that villagers blame for recent drownings, missing livestock and ruined crops. Cora dreams of discovering a lost species, some kind of dinosaur, but the local vicar, William Ransome, dismisses the serpent as pure superstition and sermonizes against it. The two strike up a passionate friendship despite their differences and Ransome’s devotion to his consumptive wife and three children. Perry excels in evoking the wonders of the natural world, and breathes life in all of her characters, from a cantankerous codger to a brilliant surgeon to Cora’s autistic son and his socialist nanny. It is the latter who wisely states, “There are no ordinary lives.” Oh, what an extraordinary book!

At one point in Gail Godwin’s pensive new novel Grief Cottage (Bloomsbury, digital galley), 11-year-old Marcus sees a boy his own age coming toward him. He is startled that the sturdy, suntanned youth is his own mirrored reflection, and no wonder. He is no longer the pale, bookish orphan sent to stay with his great-aunt on a South Carolina island after his mother’s sudden death. Not that Marcus isn’t still haunted by grief and loss, and also, perhaps, by the ghost of a boy who disappeared during a hurricane 50 years ago. Marcus senses his presence in the ruin of Grief Cottage, which has been immortalized in Aunt Charlotte’s atmospheric paintings. She is laconic, solitary, prickly and drinks to ward off her own demons, and she seems an unlikely guardian for a growing boy. But the two come to depend on one another, especially after an accident turns Charlotte into a temporary invalid unable to paint. Marcus is also befriended by an island old-timer who restores antique cars, the head of the local sea-turtle watch, and the wealthy widow next-door mourning the loss of her grown son.

Although set in the early years of this century, Grief Cottage glints with nostalgia for lost people and times. Part of it is the past-haunted Lowcountry setting; Godwin borrows from Pawley’s Island and Isle of Palms to create her own island, where the shifting sands thwart developers. Part of it, too, is an undercurrent of mystery. Who is Marcus’s father? Why did Aunt Charlotte leave home long ago? What happened to Grief Cottage’s inhabitants when Hurricane Hazel howled ashore? Such questions animate this haunting summer story.

 

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oppositeTrust me: You want Paula Vauss on your side. The formidable Atlanta divorce lawyer eats other lawyers for lunch as she wages war on their clients. Her tongue is as sharp as her black stilettos, their “blood-red soles promising all sorts of carnage.”

The narrator of Joshilyn Jackson’s layered new novel, The Opposite of Everyone (HarperCollins, digital galley), is battle-hardened. The mixed-race daughter of a free-spirited white mother, Paula moved from place-to-place in the South as a child, until one of her mom Kai’s drug-dealing boyfriends got busted. Kai went to jail and Paula — whom Kai called Kali after the Hindu goddess — ended up in the foster-care system. Then a betrayal led to a long estrangement, and Paula assuages her guilt by sending monthly checks to an address in Texas. When a check is returned along with a cryptic note, and a young man with Kai’s green eyes turns up on Paula’s door, her past converges with her present. With the help of her ex-lover Birdwine, a troubled private detective, Paula begins the search for Kai and the family secrets that will change everything.

An accomplished novelist (A Grown Up Kind of Pretty, Someone Else’s Love Story), Jackson has a gift for creating quirky, memorable characters in unexpected situations. Here she weaves riveting scenes of young Paula’s experiences in a group home with her adult struggle to remain independent yet not withhold her heart. The judgmental lawyer learns that sometimes the stories we tell ourselves are not the whole stories, and truth comes with forgiveness. Trust me: The Opposite of Everyone is a story you’ll want to read.

onlyloveIf you’re a fan of Neil Young’s music and the novels of Southern storytellers like Pat Conroy and David Payne, and if you don’t let nostalgia and familiarity get in the way of your reading pleasure, than Ed Tarkington’s first novel Only Love Can Break Your Heart (Algonquin, digital galley) is your kind of book. Tarkington darkens his coming-of-age tale with elements of Southern gothic, but the whole is burnished by a sense of place and family.

The place is the small town of Spencerville, Va., in the mid-1970s and 1980s. The family is the Askews — “the Old Man,” his younger second wife, his teenage son Paul from his first marriage, and younger son Rocky. It is Rocky, age 7 when the story begins, who narrates from the vantage point of middle age. Rocky worships 16-year-old Paul, whose long hair and cigarettes brand him as something of a rebel, and he likes nothing better than hanging out with Paul and his pretty girlfriend, Leigh Bowman, listening to Young’s After the Goldrush. Rocky’s on hand when Paul trespasses on the big house up the hill and is shot and wounded by the house’s wealthy new owner Brad Culvert. But he’s left behind when Paul later runs away with Leigh and disappears. Leigh eventually returns, mentally unstable, but Paul is apparently gone for good.

And so Rocky becomes a teenager, his knowledge of life and love helped by his friendship with fragile Leigh and his relationship with Culvert’s daughter Patricia, who extends his duties as the stableboy to assignations in the hayloft. A double murder coincides with Paul’s long-awaited return to reckon with his father, felled by a stroke. Long-held family secrets come to light. Rocky grows up.

Tarkington writes beautifully, and the pages flow. As the title reminds us, only love can break your heart, but as Tarkington tells it, love is also what mends the broken pieces.

 

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fannieReaders of Fannie Flagg’s novel Welcome to the World, Baby Girl! will no doubt remember Sookie Poole, loyal college roommate of TV morning show host Dena Nordstrom. Forty years later, the two are still close confidantes, but we learn a lot more about Sookie in Flagg’s welcome new dramedy The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion  (Random House, digital galley). For that matter, Sookie learns a lot more about Sookie, and thereby hangs Flagg’s tale.

Unlike her pal Dena, Sookie Krackenberry Poole of Point Clear, Ala., has always known her people. Sure, she’s the 60-year-old wife of dentist Earle and mother of three girls (all recently wedded) and one son (single). But she’s also the dutiful daughter of 88-year-old, still-going-strong Southern matriarch Lenore Simmons Krackenberry, who is obsessed with her Simmons forebears.  Although Sookie has “the Simmons foot,” she has always been a disappointment in the ancestor-venerating department, and Lenore has a hissy fit when Sookie suggests giving all the Simmons family silver to her sister-in-law Bunny.  “Who is not even a Simmons — and not even from Alabama?” cries Lenore. “Why don’t you just cut my heart out and throw it in the yard?”

So, of course, Sookie relents and promises not break up the set of Francis I and to be a better daughter and thus a better Simmons. But that’s before the registered letter from Texas arrives in the mail and Sookie discovers she also has ties to another family — the Jurdabralinskis of Pulaski, Wisc., a colorful Polish-Catholic clan.

As Sookie’s world turns topsy-turvy, Flagg shifts the narrative to 1940s Wisconsin, where the Jurdabralinski family run Wink’s Phillips 66. Before the war, eldest daughter Fritzi was a barnstorming pilot, but she’s grounded when her partner is drafted as  a flight instructor. Her brother and the garage’s male mechanics also have joined up, so Fritzi and her three sisters pitch in to keep the family business running and turn it  into a popular roadside attraction.

But as Sookie discovers, the all-girl filling station is just one chapter in spirited Fritzi’s adventures. She becomes a Fly Girl, a member of the all-female WASPs, who fly transport and support missions for the Air Force during World War II, and two of her sisters follow suit.

Readers may think they know where the story is headed — and they may be right — but this journey to home truths offers delightful detours, from Sookie secretly meeting a psychiatrist at the Waffle House, to Fritzi outflying a condescending male pilot at a Texas airfield. Just as Fritzi’s a pro at barrel rolls, Flagg’s a whiz at loop-de-loops. Hang on, Sookie!

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guestsIn March of 1948, a fire swept through Highland Hospital in Asheville, N.C., and nine women died, including Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald. The wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda had been an on-and-off resident of the mental hospital for years.

The tragic fire at Highland — still unsolved — bookends Lee Smith’s new novel, Guests on Earth (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, digital galley), which takes its title from something Fitzgerald wrote in a 1940 letter to his daughter, Scottie: “The insane are always mere guests on earth, carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.”

I wasn’t familiar with the quote, but it strikes me as a near-perfect description of the mentally ill and/or broken-minded among us. It’s also singularly apt for Smith’s story about life at progressive Highland, where patients were often referred to as “guests” and therapy included exercise, gardening, painting, dancing and other artistic pursuits.

Zelda, a talented “guest” at Highland admired for her dancing and art, plays a secondary role in Smith’s novel, narrated by Evaline Toussaint, the orphan daughter of a New Orleans exotic dancer. In forthright fashion, Evalina tells of her colorful childhood and the mental breakdown that brings her to Highland in 1936 at age 13. Taken under the wing of the hospital’s director, famous (and real-life) psychiatrist Dr. Robert S. Carroll and his concert pianist wife, Evalina comes to consider the hospital her home. She takes lessons from Mrs. Carroll and becomes the go-to accompanist for Highland’s various musical productions — some choreographed by the chameleon-like Zelda — and she easily makes friends with patients and staff members.

All of this is entertaining enough, but the story’s depths increase as Evalina grows older and sets off on a career of her own in the greater world. When tragedy leads to another breakdown,  Evalina returns “home” to Highland, becoming more fully engaged in the lives of others there, musing over the blurred line between madness and sanity.  Her interactions with the patients — depressed Dixie and wild child Jinx, for example — illustrate the shades of normality and societal attitudes, as do her romances with a hardworking doctor and a mercurial gardener. They have backstories, as well, which call up the  “nature vs. nurture” argument.

In an author’s note at book’s end, Smith explains her personal connection with Highland and her extensive research of its history and treatment methods. Certainly, her sense of time and place is acute, especially the “snow globe” months of 1948, but it is Evalina’s tender, considering voice that lends truth to fiction. Is she an unreliable narrator of her own life?  Well, aren’t we all, to one degree or another, whether guest on earth or at home in the world?

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floraIt’s the summer of 1945 and, in a big old house in a North Carolina mountain town, 10-year-old Helen is under the guardianship of her 22-year-old cousin Flora.

From just that outline, I thought I knew what would happen in Gail Godwin’s new book Flora: A Novel (Bloomsbury, digital galley via NetGalley). Young Helen would be dazzled by the sophistication of her older cousin and would want to emulate her in all things, right up to the fateful moment of betrayal when Flora’s feet of clay would be revealed. After all, similar plots have driven other coming-of-age novels, including Anne Rivers Siddons’ Nora, Nora, Jill McCorkle’s Ferris Beach, even Godwin’s 1984 The Finishing School.

Well, I was wrong, way wrong, but Godwin gets everything right in her lovely, nuanced story of girls and guardians and the ghosts who haunt our hearts. Helen Anstruther, a writer in her 70s, looks back to when she was “going on 11,” and still reckoning with the recent death of her beloved grandmother who has raised her since her own mother died years ago. Now her father, the high school principal, has gone off to do secret war work in Oak Ridge and has imported his wife’s cousin Flora from Alabama to look after Helen.

Helen — precocious, imaginative, a bit bratty — is patently disdainful of country mouse Flora, an effusive pleaser who wears her heart on her sleeve. And there is no escape — the two are confined to the house and yard because of a polio outbreak, their only visitors the minister, the housekeeper Mrs. Jones, and the ex-soldier Finn who delivers groceries. Helen is the first to meet Finn and hear his history, and she’s increasingly possessive of his attention, even fantasizing the day when her father returns, Flora goes back to Alabama to teach school, and Finn moves into the house. He’ll be able to choose from the rooms named after “the Recoverers,” the former TB sufferers and ex-mental patients who once lived there under the care of Helen’s doctor grandfather.

Godwin seamlessly blends summer set pieces — Flora and Helen playing “Fifth Grade,” the two entertaining Finn for dinner, Helen talking books and ghosts to Mrs. Jones  — with the rich backstory of family history. Helen clings to Flora’s comments about the mother she doesn’t remember, and upbraids Flora when she unwittingly welcomes a visit from a relative her grandmother despised. But the outside world doesn’t really intrude until news of the Hiroshima bombing arrives on the eve of Helen’s birthday, when Helen herself initiates the events whose devastating consequences follow her the rest of her life.

Years later, she turns that summer over in her mind, remembers Flora, reflects on remorse — and writes this fine book.

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