This fascinating character study is called a “novel,” but, speaking as a novelist, I just can’t call it that. There are some characteristics it has in common with novels: It is fiction, it has characters, some themes are examined, and things happen. What is missing is structure. It’s like spending a day fishing and not catching anything.
In a small south Georgia town, a group of strange people live their lives. The major characters are three older women, Eula, Meade, and Hilma. Eula is the glue that holds them all together. Her sister, Louise, is suffering Alzheimer’s Disease, and believes that sexually charged space aliens will visit her if she can only put together the correct letters and numbers to attract them. Louise’s daughter, Ethel, herself sexually charged, was once married to Roger, a plant pathologist, but now goes through men like a knife through cheese. Roger is a down-to-earth man who has been adopted by all of the women. When he was married to Ethel, Eula’s husband taught him how to play old time banjo and he has mastered that talent. Meade and Hilma, retired school teachers, worry about him constantly as they each work on their own obsessions.
An artist, Della, comes to the town to paint birds and becomes obsessed with chicken feet. A fragile, flighty person, she begins to leave her stuff at the dump, with little notes explaining, for example, what is wrong with the fan she’s leaving there. This fascinates Roger and he begins a relationship with her.
Everyone, except for Roger, seems consumed with their obsessions (and even he does, to a lesser extent). Those obsessions, White seems to indicate, are what makes them unique individuals. In spite of this, only two characters truly stand out as individuals, Roger and Della. They are the only ones who are given enough of a physical description to delineate them from the others. Unfortunately, their relationship never really develops or goes anywhere. One of the most common complaints about this book is it’s hard to tell the characters apart and that lack of definition is a serious problem. For example, there really isn’t any way to keep Meade and Hilma separate. They seem to be the same character. Honestly, I don’t think White did that to make a point.
Two things seem apparent in the book. First, the world is changing for the worse, and second, we are all ravaged by our own concerns. Rich old woodland is being subdivided and suburbs are being built. No one takes the time to learn the names of birds. Some people are so concentrated on the little things that interest them that they can’t even carry on a normal conversation with others. Romantic relationships appear to be impossible.
In other words, things have deteriorated and we will not be able to fix them.
If you have heard and like Bailey White’s commentary on NPR, you will probably like this book. It’s very funny in places and it is certainly interesting to lose yourself in this little community. It feels like a series of her commentaries strung together in an attempt to create a novel, but the lack of any identifiable structure keeps it from being a successful novel.
Stories live in their construction. Things don’t happen randomly, but are shaped by the author to a purpose. White does this admirably in her short works, but a novel must have several arcs to it. The main story arc develops from humble beginnings to reach a denouement and the main character arc does the same thing. Events in a story shape the development of the character, who grows through their experience. The events and themes must be shaped so that they work themselves to a fine point and if they don’t, then the reader feels like they’re sitting in a boat, rocking on the water, and not going anywhere.
Bring your bait and tackle.