Thursday, November 13, 2014

Book Review: Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir by Frances Mayes

I had an unusual experience with the book. The woman who loaned it to me had said that she was "dipping in and out of it" and internally I made a face as I never, ever do that (in fact, I even stopped flipping around in Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography and started reading it straight through!) But I think that is a great way to read this book.

I was under the mistaken impression that the book was about Ms. Mayes's moving back to the South (North Carolina) as an adult (after her sojourn in Italy). Instead, that bookends the memoir, but the book is about her growing up and ends when she's about 22. From Fitzgerald, Georgia (one college professor upon hearing the name of her hometown did remark "Isn't that a bit much?"), she was the much youngest (eight years behind her nearest sister) daughter of a couple of fought bitterly and dark heavily. Her father ran his father's fabric mill, and her mother was a good housewife of the 1950s, painting her nails, baking brownies, and recovering furniture (with the help of an African-American maid.) Frances never quite fit in. Chomping at the bit to get out from her small town and repressive family from a young age, she did eventually get to go away to college (first Randolph-Macon and then the University of Florida) but she seemed never to feel completely free of the South until the death of her parents. It seems as if only when that last tie was severed, could she make the choice to return without repercussions.

The book is filled with languid tales of floating down rivers in summer, buying Capezios and going on dates, sneaking out of the dorms to have fun and party. It also has sordid stories of mental abuse, withholding, manipulation, and other trials of familial love gone wrong. Each chapter stand on its own and can be read as an essay. They are in chronological order in the Book, but the past doesn't inform the future much. A few characters do progress--most often by deterioration, not growth--but for me it did not gel as a single narrative. Instead, I found that when I tried to read it straight through, I did not enjoy it. But when I read it in short bits here and there, I did. That's strange. Most books improve with a large block of time when you can delve deeply into it, but this one didn't. When I tried that, the stories felt repetitive, unremittingly cruel, and a little boring. But when I switched back to the short stretches of reading, it improved immensely. Maybe you need to digest the parts. Or maybe you need to stay on the surface and not delve too deeply. Whatever the reason, this is the perfect book if you know you don't have a lot of time and are looking for a book which you can set down and it won't suffer from the delay. This one improves.

I borrowed this book from a friend.

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