Joshilyn Jackson has (thus far, at least) established a certain set of ground rules in her novels. There will be strong, flawed female characters; they will be from the south; and a shadow of darkness will lurk in the corners, just beyond where the light manages to reach. A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty, Jackson's latest novel, contains both a lot of light and a whole heck of a lot of darkness, all blended into a particular Jackson-style piece of fiction.
A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty introduces a whole host of fabulous characters, both sort-of heroes and definite villains. At the novel's center are three generations of Slocumb women: Ginny (also known as Big), Liza, and Mosey (or Little). Grandmother, mother, and daughter all live in a little house in the fictional small-town of Immita, Mississippi, which lies somewhere along the Gulf Coast. After Liza suffers a stroke at the age of 29, Big and Mosey serve as caretakers for her. It's not an easy life, but it's their own.
That is, until a pulled-up willow tree in their backyard reveals a secret none of them is prepared to discuss. During the subsequent police investigation, Big and Mosey conduct their own covert operations in an attempt to discover the truth behind the unearthed box. For Big, that means serious rehabilitation work with Liza, as it's clear she holds the truth deep within her broken body. In Mosey's case, it means she and her sidekick Roger turn their investigative abilities into high gear. Roger invents one wild goose chase after another, until Mosey is worn out with his eagerness.
In the process of attempting to solve the mystery under the willow tree, all three generations mature in various ways. Big learns to overstep what she refers to as her "bad year" (which happens once every fifteen years, so far); Liza works to recall the words she needs to communicate; and Mosey gains a deeper understanding of exactly what it means to be a family.
Jackson's villainous characters are every bit as interesting as her mostly-good ones. A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty offers up a character list peppered with drug users, self-righteous private-school moms, and cheating ex-wives. Most of the time, Jackson allows just a glimmer of goodness to shine through their cold veneers, but a couple of these characters simply never redeem themselves -- as in life. Their inclusion is a perfect foil for the radiating goodness of the more sympathetic characters.
The deep south is as much a character in the novel as are the characters themselves. As she grew up along Florida's Emerald Coast and currently lives in Atlanta, Joshilyn Jackson is a southern girl born and bred. In short, she knows of what she speaks. She is the south. This is highly apparent in her novels, and A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty is no exception. Immita, fictional though it may be, has the bones of a true southern small town. It's the kind of place where everyone knows everyone (and everything), where the Baptists believe they're going to heaven (while everyone else rots in you-know-where), and where there are backwoods sects like the Duckins that are the stuff of legends.
Full of humor and raw emotion, A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty is quite simply southern literature -- or any literature, for that matter -- at its best. Jackson pulls out all the stops in this fifth novel. Well-drawn characters, a finely nuanced setting, and a darn good story.
Joshilyn Jackson is the author of four other novels, including gods in Alabama (my review here); Between, Georgia; The Girl Who Stopped Swimming; and Backseat Saints (my review here). You can follow her hilarious ramblings on her blog Faster Than Kudzu, or even catch her on book tour for A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty between now and February 18.