A wistful coming-of-age tale in which a South Carolina mountain girl finds escape at beauty school.
Zora Adams could get into college, but the idea of it is too big to fit into the life she’s had. Life on the mountain with Mama has been no picnic; since Daddy died, Mama has imagined herself as a rural Judy Garland, donning the clothes and all the bad habits of her icon. After watching booze, rough men and grinding poverty destroy Mama, Zora is leaving. She has won a grant to the Davenport School of Beauty, in a town near the coast, a world away. Housing has been arranged for her—she’s to live in an apartment above the garage of professor Winston Sawyer and cook his dinner in exchange for board. For Zora, it is love at first sight. A young widower, Winston has devoted himself to drunkenness. While her nights are spent watching Winston through the window, her days are surprisingly happy. Zora has a knack for hair (and unlike Mama or Winston, she can transform the people in her chair), and she finds a best friend in fellow student Sara Jane, a pretty girl whose wealthy family welcomes Zora into their life. Zora tries to put all her love in the dishes she delivers Winston, but he is insensible to all but the bottle. Sara Jane has better luck when she falls in love with Winston’s yard boy, Jimmy, a Mexican immigrant whose existence will infuriate Sara Jane’s father. The novel takes a surprising turn when Winston seduces Zora. She hopes for romance, but all he can manage is silence and sex. While Zora keeps hoping to redeem Winston, Sara Jane, with her father’s hard-won approval, is to marry Jimmy in the biggest wedding of the year. When Zora becomes pregnant, and then her mother shows up begging her to return to the mountain, Zora has to make some grown-up decisions about who she wants to be.
Well-drawn characters and depth lie beneath the beauty treatments in this affecting debut.