Rebecca Wells has made a name for herself writing emotional stories about unique, eccentric women down South at various eras in the modern world. The author of YA-YAS IN BLOOM, LITTLE ALTARS EVERYWHERE and DIVINE SECRETS OF THE YA-YA SISTERHOOD has mined this material for years now, landing each time on the bestseller lists, with YA-YA hitting the big screen as well. When she’s not careful, she is mired in sticky bayou swamp mud, turning heartfelt tales into soap opera storylines. THE CROWNING GLORY OF CALLA LILY PONDER has one foot in the world of preciousness and one foot in the world of a truly unique personality, as Calla Lily discovers her healing powers and makes her way into the bigger world.
Calla Lily loses her mother, whom she endearingly refers to as “M’Dear” throughout, as does everyone else. This nickname fits her, a boho Southern beauty with a penchant for dancing and cosmetology; it seems that her abilities on display at her own Beauty Porch have farther-reaching consequences. M’Dear brings Calla up to believe that she has those same healing powers, and M’Dear befriends and cares for a huge group of neighbors and acquaintances in their little bayou town until she succumbs to a 70’s-era case of breast cancer and leaves all of them behind. Calla’s brothers and father try to help her carry on under the good graces of her mother’s imagined Moon Lady, the goddess figure she introduced to Calla as a young child, the one who makes them dance, the one who watches over them and guides their healing forces forward.
It is a poetic device that feels unnecessary since Calla and her mother have such an otherworldly bond --- the Moon Lady can’t possibly watch over Calla in the second half of the book as well as M’Dear must be. And so, after this difficult loss, as well as a searing first love heartbreak, the nastiness of Jim Crow-era Southern bigotry, and the different avenues Calla and her friends take post-high school, Calla moves to New Orleans to study cosmetology and find a new family.
Wells makes Calla feel like a good old Southern fiction girl with spunk and drive --- she has a heart as big as Frankie in THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING and determination that rivals that of Scarlett O’Hara, that iconic Southern belle. It is a convincing and endearing portrait, and Calla’s eyes make an appropriate prism through which to investigate the ’70s realities that the story is built around. The world of Bourbon Street, with its gay culture and Southern iconography, comes alive through Calla’s eyes, and even the burgeoning world of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy empire helps her to examine the sexual revolution from a very interesting point of view.
Wells would be best to forget a lot of the fancy poetics and just let Calla tell her story. However, she has a nice way with language, so not all the poetic parts feel strained. It is with THE CROWNING GLORY OF CALLA LILY PONDER that she so effortlessly and kind-heartedly moves into the brave new modern world with the best intentions at heart. Of all her books, I think this volume best combines her love of women, the South, and the bumpy adventure through life we all take.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on December 28, 2010
The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder