Author: Susan Gregg Gilmore
Publisher:Three Rivers Press
Price: $17.00 (Paper)
"The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove: A Novel"
Author: Susan Gregg Gilmore
Publisher: Shaye Areheart Books (Random House)
Price: $23.00 (Cloth)
03/14/2011 Susan Gregg Gilmore is an experienced journalist who has produced, lately, in short order, a pair of popular novels.
Each tells the story of the life of a Southern girl, from early childhood into adulthood in the first case, all the way to the grave in the second. They both fall into a subgenre one might call Dixie-chick-lit.
"Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen" features young Catherine Grace Cline, of Ringgold, Georgia, not far from Atlanta. The time is approximately 1970 and The Vietnam War is on.
The Cline men have been Baptist preachers in Ringgold for generations and are considered good at it. Catherine Grace's mother drowned, we're told, when she was six, but the body was never found. Daddy is a kind, caring fellow, doing his best as a single parent, a little lonely himself until he establishes a relationship with a local teacher. Life is calm—in fact, for a kid, boring. On page one Catherine Grace says, "every night before I went to bed I got down on my knees and begged the Lord to find me a way out of this town. And every morning I woke up in the same place." Like many small-town kids in reality and fiction, our young heroine is itching to get to the big city.
After high school graduation, Catherine Grace makes her move, goes to Atlanta, finds a good job and a nice place to live and, happily, is not corrupted by the urban jungle.
So far so good, but in what was to me a truly surprising plot move, indeed, improbable, Catherine Grace finally changes her mind and returns to Ringgold. This is explained as "destiny" and "there's just no running away from your destiny." I just didn't believe it.
"Dairy Queen" is so full of prayer, answered prayer and varieties of predestination it could be sold in Christian bookstores. And there are a lot of readers there.
"Bezellia Grove" has almost no religious dimension, but, paradoxically perhaps, seems less fresh and more predictable.
The Grove family has lived in Nashville for 250 years, and in the big house, a veritable Tara, for generations, although, like Faulkner's Compsons in "The Sound and the Fury," the Groves have sold off almost all the land, over time. Young Bezellia is the sixth generation to bear the unusual name.
All should be well with the Groves but almost nothing is. Mother is a mean drunk, an alcoholic so pickled she tips over into madness and paranoia and has to have electroshock therapy. A snob and a racist, she vacillates between coldness and verbal viciousness towards her daughter, sometimes veering into outright physical assaults. Readers will wonder what terrible experience in her childhood might have twisted mother so badly, and it is in fact revealed, generating a modicum of sympathy.
Father is a successful physician, but, like Faulkner's Mr. Compson, he is weak. He fails to protect Bezellia or rein in Mother and distracts himself with other women.
Bezellia, a lonely, miserable child, gets whatever nurturing and kindness she gets from the black maid, Maizelle, a Dilsey figure who lives in a cinderblock room in the basement, with a toilet separated only by a plastic curtain.
The Groves have an African-American gardener /handyman, Nathaniel, who one day brings to work with him his handsome son, Samuel, described as "strapping, good-looking." Few readers of Southern fiction will fail to guess what happens next.
Gilmore can create characters, entertain, and tell a story. For casual readers, that's enough.