From journalist/memoirist Carter (Nothing to Fall Back On, 2002), a sweet debut novel about a young widow and her daughter who move to Florida in 1958, searching for warm weather and a new life.
Tessie Lockhart looks like Joanne Woodward, works in a dress shop in Carbondale, Ill., and talks daily to her husband Jerry, who’s been dead for two and a half years. When a letter arrives from school alerting her to teenaged daughter Dinah’s unhappiness, Tessie—whose own formula for getting through the day requires cigarettes and a half bottle of Almaden—pulls out an atlas and decides on Gainesville as the place to start over. The town proves to be a hotbed of charming eccentrics, so our heroines fit right in. Dinah, who thinks her father is communicating with her through an odd classmate called Eddie Fingers, becomes best friends with rich girl Crystal Landy, whose beautiful and amusingly self-indulgent mother has an eye for the young Cuban girl in the local hair salon. Crystal’s brother, Charlie, has psychic powers known only to their housekeeper, a woman devoted to Jesus and the novels of Harold Robbins. Tessie lands a receptionist job and a lover: Barone Antonucci, a suave, older, well-to-do man with a hopelessly incapacitated wife. Barone’s presence, however, is cleared by Jerry, whom Tessie consults by writing notes, putting them in a small cedar box (aptly named the “Jerry Box”) and waiting for a sign. Silly as it all seems, life in Gainesville has its serious moments. As the ’50s move into the ’60s, the town and the characters undergo changes wrought by history (the Vietnam War, integration) and personal experience (the Landy house burns down, Dinah and Charlie fall in difficult love, Tessie becomes pregnant with Barone’s child). But at the close, all the ends are tied up, albeit in a decidedly crooked bow.
Odd mix of styles and themes, but nonetheless an endearing portrait of a place and time.