I marvel at women I know who still are friends with girls they knew in college, high school, junior high and even grade school. Many still have "girlfriend getaway weekends" with these pals where they do regular catchups on each other's lives. Others share weekly or monthly phone chats or emails. They have celebrated each other's weddings and children together, and yes, often shared many tears.
While I have lots of girlfriends, I do not have a posse of girls who I have traveled through life with. Thus, when a book like Cassandra King's THE SAME SWEET GIRLS comes along, I read it as a voyeur trying to get a handle on why these relationships thrive and what nourishes them over the years. The jacket of the book told me that King belongs to a real life Same Sweet Girls group, which reunites every year. Reading this book I know she is writing from the experience of being a lifelong girlfriend not just in name, but from the heart.
While I have never been a girlfriend like this, King has created characters who I related to, and enjoyed, and she crafted a story that I was eager to get back to each time I was called away.
There are six "same sweet girls" --- Corinne, Julia, Lanier, Astor, Byrd and Rosanelle. We quickly learn that Rosanelle is not one of the original six, but rather she has "replaced" Dixie Lee who died in a tragic accident. Readers are told that these remaining women felt that being five was not as complete as being six and the loss would be too huge unless they "filled in the gap" with someone else.
The women are paired like they were as roommates and certain bonds within the groups are tighter than others, much as you see when any group of women gathers. They meet twice a year for a reunion where they celebrate their traditions of electing a queen complete with a hokey ceremony and costumes. Sure it's corny, but you can visualize them taking part in it.
As the book begins the SSG are 48 years old, have been friends for 30 years since the day they all started college at a women's Methodist school, and are looking upon their upcoming "big birthday" at 50 with nostalgia and a sense of what has been done --- and a longing for what is missing. Each of these women has something to complete or correct, as the book opens. How they will do that is how the story takes its shape.
Narration comes from Corinne, Julia and Lanier, and they relate the stories of Astor, Byrd and Rosanelle. These three voices at the beginning are not distinctive enough for me, but as the story fleshes out they each do adapt separate styles and tones that work and allow the reader to hear them more clearly.
Corrine is a well-respected and well-known gourd artist. As an aside, creating this character to not just be an artist, but rather one with a specific talent, King gives readers background on this art and why it is special, which lends another dimension to the book. Julia is the first lady of Alabama who is trapped in a world of datebooks, schedules and responsibilities. Lanier is a nurse, who is living apart from her husband, and is trying to figure the direction her life will take.
One of the characters will go through a life crisis that "the girls" cannot solve --- even if they all band together. From this moment of reality each of the SSG will look at her own life and face what needs to be done. It's like this moment has served them all as a call to pay attention to all that matters to them. What they find more than makes up for what they have lost in previous years and also redefines and strengthens their friendship.
King writes great Southern women. She nails the voice, the attitude and the endless small nuances that make one sure that you are listening to Southern women instead of a woman from the North. There is a "right" way to do everything, and even when these Sweet Girls do not conform, they know they are breaking the rules that have been passed down by Mama and Grandmammy. This is one of my favorite lines from Corinne --- "The illusion of sweetness, that's all that counts. We don't have to be sincerely sweet, but by God we have to be good at faking it. Southern girls will stab you in the back, same as anyone else, but we'll give you a sugary smile while doing it."
I really enjoyed King's previous book, THE SUNDAY WIFE. In THE SAME SWEET GIRLS I feel she takes her writing to a new level. And now I really look forward to seeing her next book.
Reviewed by Carol Fitzgerald on January 23, 2011
The Same Sweet Girls