There’s a well-known saying that when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Unfortunately for Cecilia Honeycutt, the 12-year-old girl at the center of Beth Hoffman’s phenomenal debut novel, the lemons life has thrown at her are rotten, unsalvageable fruits, and clearly something or someone else is going to have to intervene if she will taste any sweetness in life.
CeeCee has grown up in a sm all town in Ohio. Her mother is Camille Sugarbaker Honeycutt, a 1951 Vidalia Onion Queen and, via her marriage, a northern transplant. Sadly, like the beautiful and delicate flower whose name she bears, life for Camille Honeycutt above the Mason-Dixon line is an impossible climate in which to thrive. Today we might say CeeCee’s mother has schizophrenia, is a manic-depressive, or, at the very least, is mentally disturbed. In the world of the late 1960s that CeeCee inhabits, she just knows that her mother’s mood and mindset can change at the drop of a hat. She’s aware that it’s because of her mother’s instability that her father, a machine tool salesman, stays away for weeks at a time leaving her to cope in an endless game of who’s taking care of who.
It seems everyone knows CeeCee’s mother is crazy, but other than an 80-year-old neighbor, Mrs. Gertrude Odell, no one makes any effort to nurture CeeCee or intervene in the situation. Poor CeeCee has developed into a bright student whose best friend is Nancy Drew and whose only mother figure is the tottering Mrs. Odell, who loves CeeCee like a grandchild but is just too old to offer anything more helpful than Sunday morning pancakes. Camille’s title of Vidalia Onion Queen is obviously a crowning moment that her tortured psyche is constantly attempting to recapture. She is one of the best customers at the local Goodwill, carrying home armloads of ragged prom gowns and wedding dresses until her closets bulge. Into these dresses she will slip, a tiara perched upon her head, before positioning herself in the front yard to blow kisses at passing cars. It was in just one such dress that she either steps or stumbles in front of (CeeCee is never totally sure which) a truck that finally brings her agonizing reign to a tragic end.
It is the afternoon following the funeral and CeeCee has much to ponder. Her mother is dead. Her father has no idea how to raise a child and, based on Camille’s suspicions, probably has at least one woman waiting in the wings. She knows her mother loved her deeply yet can’t understand why she not only always made life so difficult but has ultimately left her all alone. Is there a special place in heaven for people who were mentally ill, or do they automatically get well in the afterlife? In the midst of such contemplations, a car pulls into the driveway. Not just any car, but a vintage shiny red Packard convertible with a shiny, outstretched guardian angel (named Delilah) on the hood. Tootie Caldwell has arrived.
Tallulah Caldwell is CeeCee’s great-aunt who only ever saw baby CeeCee once before Camille’s psychosis caused her to cut ties with her Southern roots. Tootie has come with an offer for CeeCee’s father: let her take CeeCee back to Savannah, Georgia, where she will raise her not only in much better surroundings but, more importantly, in a greater state of normalcy than she has ever known. To his credit, CeeCee’s father recognizes this gift for what it is and in no time is strongly suggesting to CeeCee that she pack her things, say goodbye to Mrs. Odell and get ready for a long car trip.
Life in Savannah surrounds CeeCee with caring women. From her Aunt Tootie (queen of historic preservation and of the garden) to Oletta Jones (Aunt Tootie’s black cook who tucks CeeCee tight up under her wing) to her wacky feuding neighbors, Miz Goodpepper and Violene Hobbs, there is no shortage of feminine voices. CeeCee sets about making the transition from life without a female mentor to a life chock full of independent, funny, interesting and interested role models.
Savannah is not all wine and roses, but, well, mostly it is. Hoffman presents the reader with a few scenarios in which it seems the lemons are going to start hurling themselves at CeeCee again. But by age 12, she has had enough lemons, and even the most threatening scenes right themselves before the reader’s heart can totally sink and become mere learning experiences instead. Also chafing in her subconscious is an unwillingness to come to terms with her mother’s death and illness, and her fear that this sickness was passed on to her. Every female voice in the novel will play a role in eventually helping CeeCee break down these final barriers between her old life in Ohio and her new one in Savannah. This is most definitely an uplifting book, and the strength of Hoffman’s characters and the charming affection with which she tells their stories keeps it from being merely a “feel-good read” and allows it to attain something more. This is one of those books that has that “it” factor.
One look at the resume of Beth Hoffman’s editor and you’ll instantly see how this book fits in: Pamela Dorman has brought the world such gems as THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES, THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER and THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN. Her knack for pulling bestsellers from the pile has earned her a namesake imprint at Viking, and Hoffman’s novel is the first book to bear her name: Pamela Dorman Books. SAVING CEECEE HONEYCUTT has all the components necessary to hit the bestseller list right out of the gate, become a book club favorite and the first novel everybody will be talking about in 2010. It’s simply the best book with which to start a new year!
Reviewed by Jamie Layton on October 26, 2010
Saving CeeCee Honeycutt