A vivid and charming portrait of a large southern family, the Fairchilds, who live on a plantation in the Mississippi delta. The story, set in 1923, is exquisitely woven from the ordinary events of family life, centered around the visit of a young relative, Laura McRaven, and the family’s preparations for her cousin Dabney’s wedding.
The tone of the first chapter, from the point of view of a young child, was excellent. But she was not able to construct a story line that could be told from Laura's point of view, and had to flit from character to character to continue the narrative.
There was no character development, no revelations, no resolution, no explanation of any of the odd (though interesting) characters that drifted through the delta.
This is the 1920's, and while the plantation is almost self-contained, and somewhat outside of time, still hints of the world beyond its fields and cotton houses creep in. Dabney's older sister, Shelley, longs to get her hands on a copy of The Beautiful and Damned, which is going around the Delta, and she is packing for a trip to Europe with her Aunt Tempe. Flowers, dresses, cake and shepherdesses' crooks for the wedding come in from Memphis and are viewed with awe and some skepticism. A cousin, also from Memphis, brings chicken pox with her, and must be quarantined.
The novel is short on plot, long on place and character, brimming with subtext. There are flighty maiden aunts, scatty and somewhat scary old black retainers, drunken uncles, dissatisfied wives, precocious children who pop in and out with observations and pronouncements that often seem out of place. The action sometimes has the feel of a stage play, and in fact treating it that way was helpful to me at times when I couldn't seem to "engage" with what was going on. I just tried to watch it as carefully as possible until the scene changed. There are levels and levels of meaning in the commonplace goings-on, and trying to read this book casually or superficially is likely to leave the reader unimpressed. There just isn't enough pure story to carry you on, unless you plunge into the depths and realize how much exploration of relationships and themes is happening below the surface. Men/women, blacks/whites, youth/age, love and disillusionment, class differences, motherhood, moral ambiguities...so much is going on. Just as one example, the whole subject of pregnancy and childbirth permeates scene after scene. Dabney's mother is pregnant (for the tenth time). Pinchy, one of the servants, is clearly near to giving birth, quite possibly to Troy's child. A cousin couldn't come to the wedding, because she has just recently had a baby. There is even a suggestion that Dabney may be pregnant. (One scene in particular put that idea in my head, and after all, why else would she be getting married in such a hurry at such an inopportune time?)
I'm not much of a close reader, but this novel is beautifully composed in a way that made that process rewarding. And naturally, once will not be enough for me. I think I've only begun to "know" this book.
Does anyone ever read Eudora Welty and immediately comprehend exactly what she's getting at? Because I find her immensely challenging. The writing is beautiful, but sometimes I have to read a sentence multiple times to untangle the syntax -- and there were a few times when I basically shrugged and moved on! Add to that the particularly Southern vocabulary (for instance, I had to look up "joggling boards"), and characters with names like Battle, Dabney, and Lady Clare (many of which repeat over generations, so they may be talking about an existing character or her deceased great-great-aunt), and the result is a slow-reading text, languid as a Mississippi summer.
Personally, I would have liked this book better if it had remained in Laura's perspective the whole way through. Instead, the point of view shifted frequently, sometimes disconcertingly, from one character to another, and that character might get lost in reminiscences for several pages before picking back up in the middle of a scene. There's not a great deal of plot here ("a southern family prepares for a big wedding" about sums it up), so there's nothing to pull the story along.
I did enjoy parts of this book -- the characterization was strong, and of course the setting shines. I probably won't keep or reread it, but I'm glad I made the effort.
Struggling to keep track of the characters forced me to go back and re-read parts of the book at times, which was, in fact, helpful in discovering important overlooked details. This is a book you can re-read many times always discovering something or someone new.