home

no, no, not that Mrs. Darcy

Thanks to Algonquin books for the review copy.

Thanks to Algonquin books for the review copy.

I don’t read as many short stories as I used to. When I opened up Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger, I raced through the first one and then the second that first night, and then I had to force myself to take my time. One story a night, I promised myself. And so I took in a story at a time, each one different but also familiar.

Each story in Mrs. Darcy is set in the American south, but the main characters are both male and female, young and old and in-between. Some of the stories feel more like vignettes and others are more fully plotted, with crises and resolutions. Each details a moment or two in which the main character slips from a familiar world into a new one. Whether trepidation, optimism, or despair comes along with that sea change is different for each protagonist.

In “House Tour,” Lynn is at home alone looking forward to a glass of wine from a box when a gaggle of Red Hat Society members gently bully themselves into her house, mistakingly believing it’s part of a civic tour of homes. Lynn, a Yankee whose marriage has a few nicks in its veneer, is swept away by her impromptu guests, who peek into her rooms and force her into conversation and ghost stories. In the middle of their visit, Lynn’s husband, the supercilious playwright Lawrence, comes home.

“Ladies…” Lawrence begins, then pauses. “Ladies, pardon me. But could you explain your attire to me, please? Are you members of a club? An organization?”

“Not really,” Rita says.

“We’re a disorganization,” Georgia explains. “The only rule is that you have to be over fifty. And basically we’re all tired of doing things for other people. We just want to have some fun. We’re releasing our inner child,” she adds.

Lawrence laughs, a short, abrupt bark.

Oh no, Lynn is thinking. Now he will destroy them.

“Intensive Care” is the story of Harold, a successful man who has left his wife, money, and children to take up with the woman who was once his teenage crush, Cherry Oxendine.

Lois ought to know. She’s been right there during the past six weeks while Cherry Oxendine has been in Intensive Care, writing down Cherry’s blood pressure every hour on the hour, changing bags on the IV, checking the stomach tube, moving the bed up and down to prevent bedsores, monitoring the respirator—and calling Rodney Broadbent, the respiratory therapist, more and more frequently. “Her blood gases is not by twenty-eight,” Lois said in the Beauty Nook. “If we was to unhook that respirator, she’d die in a day.”

“I would go and do it then, if I was Harold,” said Mrs. Hooker, the Presbyterian minister’s wife, who was getting a permanent. “It is the Christian thing.”

“You wouldn’t either,” Lois said, “because she still knows him. That’s the awful part. She still knows him. In fact she peps right up ever time he comes in, like they are going on a date or something. It’s the saddest thing. And ever time we open the doors, here comes Harold, regular as clockwork. Eight o’clock, one o’clock, six o’clock, eight o’clock, why shoot, he’d stay in there all day and all night if we’d let him. Well, she opens her mouth and says Hi honey, you can tell what she’s saying even if she can’t make a sound.”

There are so many more I want to tell you about. There’s “Tongues of Fire,” about a young girl who begins going to a Charismatic church with a friend’s family and develops a fascination with the practice of speaking in tongues. In “Fried Chicken,” a woman whose favorite son is in prison for murder tries to find meaning in her life by preparing his favorite meal. Jeffrey, the young boy at the center of “Toastmaster,” is out to dinner with family when he overhears a group of boisterous diners practicing joke after joke, and though he’s always felt invisible, he’s overcome with the desire to be seen. The title story is the last one in the book and a fitting capstone, featuring the eponymous Mrs. Darcy, who ruffles her grown children’s plans to install her in a nursing home during a summer by the beach. In all of the stories, Smith gives us characters we can understand, even the ones who hurt the ones they love. After all, that’s something that almost all of us have done and will do again.

I missed this book when it came out in hardcover last year, but I’m so glad I got the chance to read it now. Lee Smith’s talent is one that I think of as quintessentially Southern, and not just because that’s where all the stories in the collection are set. Her writing is genteel, handling each of her characters with compassion and a bless-your-heart and the zest of true wit and humor. There’s something more to it than her voice, though. Reading Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger is like going to a wonderful dinner party at a well-kept home. Everything sparkles; everything shows the polish of maintenance and care. The company is just the right blend for lively conversation. The food is exquisite, a feast for the eyes and the nose as well as the palate. And at the end of the night, when your hostess hands your coat back and you take your leave, she accepts your thanks gracefully while never giving the slightest hint of how much work it took to pull off the evening.

Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger (paperback, May 2011)

US | Canada | Everywhere else

give me a southern storm

Many thanks to Doubleday for the review copy.

Many thanks to Doubleday for the review copy.

Sometimes when I read I want a book full of quiet, meaningful elegance that steps very carefully into every word. Sometimes, though, my life gets a little too quiet and I want something different, a storm of a book that blows out windows and leaves ruin in its wake. InThe Revenge of the Radioactive Lady, there’s a hurricane that makes landfall four times, coming back for more destruction every time folks think the coast is clear. The rest of the book is the same way. 

Marylou Ahearn is 77 years old and she has murder on the brain. Back in 1953, she was given a “vitamin” drink at an OB visit when she was pregnant with her daughter Helen. Ten years later, Helen died of a terrible cancer. The vitamin drink was actually radioactive, a substance administered to hundreds of low-income women who visited that clinic for pregnancy care. After fifty-three years, she’s tracked down the man responsible for Helen’s death: Dr. Wilson Spriggs, who conducted the experiment at the behest of the US government during the Cold War paranoia. She leaves her home in Memphis and travels to Tallahassee, where Wilson lives with his daughter and her family. When she gets there, her plans for revenge take a turn she didn’t expect—Wilson is afflicted with Alzheimer’s, and Marylou’s retaliation doesn’t pack quite the same punch when the victim can’t quite remember the crime he committed.

Time for Plan B: Marylou will just have to destroy his family, instead. Wilson’s daughter Caroline Witherspoon is struggling with hot flashes and fading youth; her husband Vic is a hapless sort who seems out of his element both at home and at work, especially when it comes to a sexually aggressive colleague. Their oldest daughter, Ava, wants simultaneously to fit in and to immerse herself in books about Elvis Presley. Their son Otis is obsessed with creating a nuclear device in their backyard shed. Both Otis and Ava have Asperger’s. And their youngest daughter, thirteen-year-old Suzi, is a social success and soccer star, but can’t seem to get her mother’s attention. This disconnected family is ripe for Marylou’s infiltration and assault.

The book is titled

The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady

—emphasis on the Revenge. This is Marylou’s story in that she is the one who starts many of the events in motion (although she’d say that Wilson started it, really, what with his toxic Kool-Aid and all). But the book is about an already unknit family falling further and further apart, with Marylou picking not-so-idly at each loose thread. Even once Marylou begins to know the Witherspoons, and to like them more than a bit, her plan to ruin them is always at the heart of her every action. It would have been easy (and predictable) for Stuckey-French to have Suzi’s charm and affection melt Marylou’s murderous heart, but instead the old woman’s actions become even more aggressive. As a tropical storm builds into a hurricane, the Witherspoon family will have to come together to save Wilson’s life, but the radioactive lady has one more trick up her sleeve.

The most fully-fleshed characters are the children, all of whom struggle with adolescence in realistic, moving ways. Ava senses the limits that Asperger’s has forced upon her but doesn’t quite know how to struggle against them. She’s impulsive, given to angry fits and childish behaviors that hold her back from making a connection with others. Otis delves so deeply into his radioactive pastime that he cannot truly see how dangerous it is, but this single-minded dark pursuit attracts the interest of a goth girl whose family is bad news. Suzi’s athletic skill may keep her approval rating high in her dad’s eyes, but she really wants a woman’s care. Since her mother is immersed in Ava’s treatment, Suzi is ripe for Marylou’s affectionate attention—attending Marylou’s creepy strip-mall church and starting down a path that might destroy her.

The cover makes it look like a much lighter, more madcap book than it is. Blurbs from other authors compare it to the work of Carl Hiaasen and to

Little Miss Sunshine

, and I can see why those comparisons work; all of these are about a collection of wildly disparate weird people who risk losing everything that matters to them. There’s something endearing and funny about watching weird people try to keep a yoke on their weirdness, although

Revenge

is by no means broad. I loved the experience of identifying with Marylou, who does absolutely reprehensible things to people she quite likes because she’s spent fifty years plotting a murder she’s as incapable of committing as Hamlet was incapable of killing Claudius. She cannot just let go of the plan to do violence to either Wilson or his own, because in her head she’s conflated that vengeance with her memory of her child.

I enjoyed reading

The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady

so much. It’s stylish and thought-provoking, and the Witherspoons are a kind of dysfunctional family I love to read about. They aren’t wasting all their energy putting on a veneer of competence. And it broke through a long winter of complacent reading and gave me a good old-fashioned southern storm.

The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady

, Elizabeth Stuckey-French

(Doubleday)

US

|

Canada

|

Everywhere Else