Brown has had a long and auspicious writing career, and right about now she can do whatever she pleases. I came to this title thinking that it was a stand-alone novel; thank you, Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. The book is available to the public October 18, 2016.
For awhile I wasn’t sure just what to make of it; there are some wonderfully wry moments, and then there are others. I’ve since learned that this is actually a continuation of a series that is chronologically placed, and so many readers will already be familiar with the characters and setting. Fans of Brown’s Runnymede series will be delighted. For those that don’t know:
“In Runnymede everybody knew everybody. Nobody forgot a thing, not one blessed thing, especially if a whiff of scandal attended it.”
The time is 1920; the small town just mentioned straddles the Mason Dixon line, with the Southern half in Maryland and the Northern half in Pennsylvania. Everyone that is important enough to make it into the story is Caucasian, and the wealthy, benevolent folk appear to outnumber the less fortunate, who work hard and are rewarded with grace and maternal affection by the local bourgeoisie.
This reviewer’s mother, long gone now, was born in the 1920’s in a different part of the American South, and I grew up hearing that welfare was simply not necessary, because in a small town, those with money always “took care of our poor”. Nobody starved, and nobody had money that came from the government, and everyone was fine, just fine. And after we’d heard this story a few dozen times, my sister, who was older than myself by many years and knew more about the small town in question than I did finally said gently, “No, Mother, you didn’t. I know that you did your best, but not all the poor were ‘taken care of’, and yes, some people there went hungry.” And I cannot help but wonder whether Brown has based her story on the same sort of flawed premise, of a benign but paternalistic system in which those in need receive from those that have extra to give, and nobody but nobody suffers.
You don’t want to know what remarks are tapped into my reader. Every time I realized that my inner snarky Marxist was taking over, I closed that particular book and went to read something else, and later came back to read it afresh. And though I found some bright spots, I was never a gentle reader here.
I think I might have enjoyed this story more had I heeded the note at the story’s outset that this is not a plot driven book. I assumed that characters would be more important than the storyline, and in this I was correct, but I wasn’t prepared not to have a plot at all, apart from one thing that leads to another in a meandering sort of way. Brown has created an everyday life using the small town she has fictionally reconstructed based on stories told her by her older relatives, and so the reader needs to be ready to drop in, almost as if looking through someone else’s attic at the letters, photos and diaries of those that were once there.
To read this novel one would never make the association between this author and the one that wrote Rubyfruit Jungle, the bold, hilarious, fiery lesbian manifesto of the early 1980s. But there can only be one such book, and when I look back at various famous writers that published one smashing novel and then never published anything else, I realize that maybe this is why. When one has made a name for oneself by writing a novel that is legendary and can never be paralleled, the choice is to move on and write something else, or stop publishing fiction and take up a completely different occupation.
Feminists will find a few satisfying nuggets here, and other nuggets not as welcome. There is a doomed lesbian relationship, but oh how gently it goes into “that good night” (with my apologies to Dylan Thomas). The cheerier aspect of it is that most of the important characters are women—a breath of fresh air in a realm still dominated largely by men—and some of them wield significant power.
I was dismayed at an episode in which a teenage girl with large breasts is compared to a cow as part of a visual prank in a school-wide pageant, and the entire town laughs about it. To me, it looked an awful lot like body shaming, and I wondered what in the world it was doing there. What’s up with that, Rita Mae?
For me and for readers unfamiliar with the series, this really seems more like a 2.0 or 2.5, but faithful readers have been rating it about 4 stars, so I am shooting down the middle and calling it 3. For those that have read and enjoyed the other volumes in the Runnymede series, this book is recommended.