Life keeps interrupting a former beauty queen’s planned suicide in Flagg’s latest (Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven, 2006, etc.) take on Southern womanhood.
Maggie Fortenberry, Miss Alabama circa the late 1960s, is not exactly depressed, but at age 60, toiling as a Birmingham Realtor as the housing bubble implodes, she simply finds life too burdensome. So she’s planned a graceful exit, donating her sparse but tasteful wardrobe, paying her bills, leaving the balance of her meager bank account to charity, etc. She’s set her suicide for late October 2008, when Brenda, her best friend and colleague at Red Mountain Realty, convinces her she must see the Whirling Dervishes during their one-night-only November appearance in Birmingham. Maggie reschedules her date with doom, but pretexts for further postponements pop up. Crestview, a mansion originally owned by Scottish industrialist and Birmingham city father Edward Crocker, is coming on the market, and Maggie suspends genteel despair long enough to snatch the listing from Red Mountain’s archrival in realty, Babs Bingington, the Beast of Birmingham. Not only did Babs indirectly cause the death of Red Mountain’s revered founder, the miniscule but irrepressible Hazel, but thanks to Babs’ scorched-earth sales tactics, Birmingham’s historic homes are being razed and replaced by shoddily constructed, vulgar monstrosities. Once Crestview is safely sold, an auto accident and grateful goat farmers present further impediments to self-destruction. Not to mention the skeleton, dressed in full Scots regalia, discovered in Crestview’s attic. Or Brenda’s compulsive overeating, which lands her in the hospital. The early sections of the novel evoke sympathy for Maggie as she rifles her catalog of regrets: her sabotaged chances at the Miss America crown, failed love affairs, thwarted dreams of success in the Big Apple and general incompetence at everything except beauty—now rapidly fading. Although the plot may justify tarring its villain or deifying its savior too broadly, there is no excuse for the Hazel-ex-machina ending.
What could have been an edgy excursion into the individual toll of the Recession on real women devolves into fluff.