Great southern fiction, particularly by women, is rooted first and foremost in a sense of place that plays itself out in the vignettes of daily life, families, tradition and attachment to a community.
When I was first contacted about reviewing THE WILDE WOMEN, Paula Wall's latest novel, I read the description provided that referred to two sisters with "hair black as midnight and eyes blazing blue" and "claws sharpened like stainless steel." Frankly, I thought I was being asked to review some sort of romantic potboiler. I know the southern literary tradition embraces the metaphor, but this seemed altogether over the top. However, I was between books at the time and thought Why not?
Frankly, it's been quite some time since I've been so pleasantly surprised by a novel.
THE WILDE WOMEN tells the story of Pearl and Kat Wilde, two sisters from Five Points, Tennessee. Shortly before she's due to marry Bourne Cavanagh, the heir to a Tennessee whiskey fortune, Pearl catches her fiancée in flagrante delicto with her sister Kat (wearing her favorite pair of shoes, no less) and proceeds to catch the first train out of town. She sends hate mail (via exotic postcards from all over the globe) to Kat every month, but finally, after five long years, she returns home a changed woman with plans to make her sister repent.
Dripping in taste as well as money, Pearl casts a Garbo-esque figure over Five Points with her air of mystery, until she lets the town know that she plans to purchase and refurbish an old falling-apart mansion and turn it into a high-class House of Ill Repute --- a move guaranteed to set Five Points on its collective ear.
Meanwhile, Kat has been living on the Wilde homestead and working at the shirt factory in town, where she has caught the eye of Mason Hughes, playboy son of the wealthy Hughes family who owns the factory and apparently much of Five Points. But Kat is not about to be just another notch on Hughes's bedpost. She sets out to let him know that if he thinks he has her all figured out, he's probably wrong.
True to her southern fiction roots, Wall knows how to neatly turn a phrase, and the novel is full of rich metaphors you'd expect in a book of this type. The expressive language is sure to engage readers who are fans of this style. Wall's background as a humorist shines through in the sharp wit of her writing. But, although the Wilde sisters are an interesting pair, a reader quickly learns that Five Points is the real focal point of this novel.
The small town set adrift in the years after the Depression is perfectly sketched, down to the hardware store where all the down-and-out men of the town pass the time with RC Cola and gossip. It is full of vignettes about the different townspeople and their relationships --- asexual Maysie McCowan and her son Eddie, the dim bulb with the movie-star looks; overworked Luella and her lazy husband, Buck; Joy Lester, her husband Roy and her beloved Rhode Island Red chickens; and many more.
Rather than distracting from the story, these subplots and vignettes enrich the novel. I admit that, at times, I did find myself more interested in some of the side plotlines than in what was going on with Pearl and Kat, but I think this is part of the book's charm. Five Points is the hero, and all of the characters --- including Kat and Pearl --- are very much a product of their time and their hometown. In the guise of a novel about sisters who are romantic rivals, Wall has gifted us with a whole town full of unforgettable characters.
I hope we'll have the chance to hear more from the folks of Five Points, Tennessee, even if Pearl and Kat have moved on to whatever else awaits them. Because Five Points, warts and all, is the kind of place you want to return to now and again.