Being away, however, does NOT mean that I haven't been reading my little heart out! After all, I did have many, many hours on airplanes and in airports to get to San Diego and back. Rather than doing these separately, I'm going to give you all three reviews below.
This is a fascinating crime story. A criminal known as much for his cowardice as for his talent and intelligence somehow lets himself get involved in a really messy heist that goes bad...and for the first time, he can't run away. The most interesting element of the story to me revolves around why our hero is known as a coward: he doesn't generally carry weapons, if something goes wrong he runs from the scene immediately, he always has a back-up plan to get himself out of any sticky situations. And that is what has caused his fellow hustlers and theives to label him a coward. In the end, though, he reveals that his so-called cowardice has a rather unexpected reason (as he tears to pieces everyone who caused the hell of the last several days, including himself). There are some touchy-feely moments with him and a dead buddy's wife (and her daughter), a bartender friend, a heroin junkie with Alzheimer's who raised him after his dad went to prison...but mostly, the story itself is fascinating and gripping and the art is BEAUTIFUL.
I picked this book up after hearing the author read from it at the Virginia Festival of the Book. Her description of it at that reading felt like it was equally about three characters whose lives were all tied together, but really, I think this is Louise's story. Her daughter, Caroline, and her housekeeper's daughter, Missy, also have stories to be told during the book, but Louise is the tie that binds. She has the most chapters in the book written from her perspective, and she is the character who experiences the most real growth. So I'm going to talk about her last.
Missy's story is the most concise. She's a teenager living in a poor area outside of Atlanta. Her mom has been working for Louise Parker for as long as she can remember, and Louise is kind to her, like a second (wealthy) mother. Her dad abandoned them when she was a small child, and she has hoping for him to come back and have a relationship with her ever since. She finally gets the chance to meet him when she finds out he's starring in a Christian drama on public access out of North Carolina, and she goes on a road trip with Louise's son, Charles, to find him. She finds out the truth about her dad, so she can let him go, and also goes through an experience that will change her life forever.
Caroline is the rebellious wild child of the Parker family. She's the oldest child and has been openly defiant of her mother's proper Southern ladylike ideals since she was five years old. She won't eat, dress, talk, or act in any way befitting her heritage and stature. She and her mother are constantly battling over everything, until she gets caught in a compromising position with her teacher. Then she runs off to San Francisco with her teacher, and their relationship is remarkably improved by the distance. She explores her desires and passions, works in the local theatre community, gets in and out of a bad marriage, gains a lot of weight and finally ends up with someone suited to her. In other words, she grows up. And it's a nice growing up story, but not ground-breaking.
Then there is Louise. Bizarre, struggling, complicated, proper Louise. Her entire adult life has been structured around being a good wife and mother and a wonderful hostess and friend. She believes in being polite at all costs and serving delicious food. The one thing she does for herself is buy folk art. She doesn't care what anyone else thinks of the art she buys; she just buys what she responds to emotionally and intellectually. Her daughter moves out, her son announces he's gay, her husband shares that he thinks his twin brother who committed suicide while they were in college was gay, she turns her house into an art gallery a few times a month, she smokes weed for the first time with her daughter in California, she lets an artist take a photo of her lady parts...and she generally lets go and becomes herself. And becomes happy. Hers is by far the most detailed and interesting transformation.
I really enjoyed reading this book. I'm a total Southern lit junkie, as most of you know, and this is right up my alley.
Let me just say up-front that I read McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter when I was in 10th grade, for English class with the best English teacher I had ever, including in college. And I loved it. With all of my heart. I've read that book over and over, and I even wrote a curriculum unit on it when I was in college for secondary education. Interestingly, I haven't read that many of her other books. I got The Member of the Wedding for free off of BookMooch, and I decided to do this crazy Fill-in-the-Gaps Project around the same time, so I put the book on my list and knew I'd read it soon. So this is book #2 I've finished for Fill-in-the-Gaps.
I read this book almost entirely on the plane to San Diego. I was about 30 pages in when I got on the plane, and it was over 2 or 3 hours before I landed in CA. It's good to know her writing is always amazing. I adored this book. It's sad and touching and nostalgic and beautiful. Frankie (aka F. Jasmine) is a rough-and-tumble tomboy just entering puberty and feeling desperately alone. Her best friend has moved away, her other friends have all turned into teenagers and she's not ready to do that, her dad works all the time. She spends most of her summer with her dad's cook/maid and her six-year-old cousin. When her brother comes home from the military and brings his new bride-to-be to visit, she falls in love with them because they belong to each other. And she decides that she belongs with them to, that she'll finally not be lonely any more when she goes to their wedding and they will of course take her with them after they're married.
Ninety percent of this book takes place the week before the wedding happens. Not a lot happens as far as action, but a lot happens in Frankie during this week. Her decision to grow up and to belong somewhere, and the actions she takes to make it happen, and her anticipation of the wedding are all so true emotionally, it's hard for me to believe that this could have been written by a grown-up and not by an 11-year-old. And then her utter heartbreak when her brother and his bride leave the wedding without her, and her determination to run away from home are stunning. It's such a simple tale, a child's story of the last vestiges of her childhood being stripped away from her. But it's just so real. And that is McCullers' true talent in all of her books I've read. She puts you through the same emotional paces as her characters, and you come up from the book gasping for air. I can't think of another writer who does this as viscerally, at least for me.