After living a mostly-nomadic life with little in the way of roots, save some time spent in Chicago, Ava Dabrowski is struggling. Her career is in shambles; her love life is a disaster; and she's just lost her estranged mother. When old college acquaintance Will Fraser offers her a place to stay for the summer in Tennessee, Ava surprises even herself by accepting. Ava drives south, knowing little to nothing about the so-called Bible belt. Although what she experiences confirms many southern cliches, Ava also learns much about small town life in the south -- which is, as Holton says, "a place where nothing much ever happened. If you didn't count murder, tragedy, undying love, and familial revenge" (314).
Summer in the South is much more than a simple Yankee-thrown-into-the-south tale, though. Holton employs multiple devices that enrich the novel. For one thing, there is a novel-within-a-novel feel to the story (although we don't ever actually read Ava's novel) as Ava struggles to write a novel based on the history of Will's family. Her battle with writer's block and then descriptions of her feverish periods of writing were fascinating to me. At one point Ava becomes lost in what Holton describes as a "fairy-tale view of reality"after "a period of intense work on her novel" (288).
Holton also includes historical elements in Summer in the South. In fact, the story begins with a death that took place in 1931. As any respecting southerner would tell you, you are nobody without a family history. Whether it be tales of genteel life on the plantation (similar to Will's family's history) or stories of bootleg moonshine and gambling (as in some of the other characters' personal histories), "who your people are" is important in the south.
Holton peoples her novel with rich, dynamic characters. In addition to Ava, Will, and the elderly sisters who open their home to Ava, both Will's cousin Fraser and local ex-UT-cheerleader-turned-jilted-housewife Darlene come to mind. Fraser, who attended UVA and was a member of the Raven Society, now dresses and has taken on the affectations of Edgar Allen Poe. Darlene is a caricature of a trampy middle-aged pageant queen. Both bring a liveliness to a novel that is otherwise dark in some of its themes -- death, loss, the past.
The main character Ava is a quintessential almost-30-year-old single female: constantly taking up with the wrong men, spurning the good ones. Chasing dreams and squelching actual paths that have promise. But in the end she learns something from her time in the southern town she inhabits:
"She laughed. 'I've always wondered, what is the meaning of life? But now it dawns on me that I've been asking the wrong question.'At times Holton seems dangerously close to writing out southern cliches rather than describing the "real" south. But it occured to me that often things become cliche because they are, in fact, so true. For example, some of her names sound old-fashioned and far-fetched: Maitland, Josephine, Fanny, Clara. But she isn't off-base at all with these eccentric-sounding names. I live in the south, the land of these real-life names: Imelda, Elbert, Nester, Inzy, Bertha (all real people).
'What's the right question?'
'What is the meaning of my life?'
'Ah,' he said." (327)
Holton writes about a place where people say, "Who would have thunk it" and "bless her little heart"; where "we don't push a button [but] mash it"; "and if someone down here says your baby is sweet, well, then you know it's ugly" (121). Far from becoming cliche, Holton writes about the south exactly as it is -- whether we want to own up to it or not!
Summer in the South was a charming novel whose characters, setting, and plot drew me in and refused to let me go. I finished the entire book in just over 48 hours! It was the perfect book to kick-start my summer reading. As the afternoons grow long and the sun gets hot, treat yourself with this excellent example of southern literature.
Cathy Holton is the author of several other novels (which you know I will be snapping up quickly to read), including Beach Trip and two novels about a group of women who call themselves the Kudzu Debutantes. As I'm heading to the beach in two weeks, I think you can guess that copies of all three may just make it into my beach bag -- especially Beach Trip!
You can visit Holton at her website or her blog. You can also read an excerpt of Summer in the South on her website and see for yourself just how good it is.