Patricia Hickman shines in her novel PAINTED DRESSES, a poignant story of sisters who are drawn back together after a death in the family, only to discover a shattering secret that has changed the course of their lives.
It’s a slow-paced story, but nonetheless enjoyable for this, and Hickman’s best writing since KATRINA’S WINGS. Gaylen Syler-Boatwright is a 20-something woman separated from her husband, plagued by nightmares and trying to make sense of her life. When her father dies, she returns to her home in Boiling Waters, North Carolina (population 2,972) and must deal with her scattered, one-french-fry-short-of-a-happy-meal sister, Delia Cheatham. When her sister gets a little trigger happy, events begin to unravel, and in a Thelma and Louise-like scene, they leave the scene of the crime, hole up for a bit in a relative’s cabin and then take off on a cross-country drive.
As they travel, they deliver unusual works of art --- dresses dipped in paint and mounted on canvas and framed, crafted by their deceased Aunt Amity Syler --- to the family members and friends named on the back of each canvas. Each dress stands for an event in the recipient’s life. Gaylen finds that her dress helps her unlock some traumatic secrets from her past.
As the symbolic journey unfolds, Gaylen’s life also unfolds to the reader in bits and pieces. Gentle faith themes are interwoven throughout as Gaylen wonders about God, and she describes in first person the odd piecemeal church experiences she and her little sister were raised on. “Mother thought of religion as something you lay in front of children like a doormat,” Gaylen recalls, and “Delia threw off my mother’s religious accouterments as fast as our little toy dog threw off the jingle-bell harness we fastened to him one Christmas.” Hickman uses conversations between Delia and Gaylen to more deeply explore their relationship with God and also with each other. In one early and telling exchange in which Delia bemoans her inability to be good, as she believes Gaylen is good, Gaylen says, “Delia, life isn’t always about being bad or good. Sometimes people get stuck in situations and no matter which way we choose, it turns out wrong.”
Hickman shows that Delia may be smarter than she seems: “Maybe I’m not as dumb as you all think, but just so smart I’m just on to all of you. I know what you all say about me, that Delia’s trash. What if I’m just happy to be me? What’s the harm in that?”
The author challenges the reader to grapple with the complexities of family and especially the cost of family secrets. She also explores why evil things happen to innocent children and the complex way marriages are constructed, maintained and sometimes fall apart.
Occasionally, Hickman overwrites (“A band of pink dimmed on the horizon like fading influenza fever”), but more often she describes her scenes well. She shines in illuminating her characters’ motivations and internal struggles, and how the influences of upbringing, trauma and family keep us from sometimes seeing things as they really are. Fans of southern fiction and those who like a literary story with well-crafted characters should find this latest Hickman offering a thoughtful look at families and faith.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on July 15, 2008