A small-town hairdresser is not quite what she seems in this novel of life under cover.
Charlie Bader, a dentist living in Dallas in 1933, is happily married until his wife catches him lounging in her nightgown doing his nails. She runs off to New Boston, Texas, to train for missionary work in Africa. He relocates to Chicago, where he finds a circle of secretly cross-dressing men—most of whom, like him, are staunchly heterosexual—who give him fashion advice, invite him to drag teas, help him cultivate a high-pitched lilt, and call him “Charlene.” But Charlie’s life is still lonely, as he feels unable to approach a woman, for fear she will discover his hidden passion and reject him. After a stint in the U.S. Army during World War II, he emerges feeling even further alienated from his manhood. He goes to the town of Heaven, Indiana, to live as a woman, use well-honed makeover skills to open a hairstyling and manicure salon. Charlie’s perspective shifts from studying womanhood through the eyes of a man to connecting more intimately with it through the lives of Charlene’s customers. Her beauty shop becomes a gathering place for the ladies of Heaven to trade gossip, hatch plans, and share confidences with the always sympathetic and discreet Charlene. She initially basks in Heaven’s seeming quiet and orderliness, but tension builds as she falls in love with a customer, knowing that she might be run out of town if she voices her feelings.
Maher (Heaven, Indiana, 2000, etc.) treats Charlene’s story with sensitivity and nuance, letting it entwine organically with the life of the town that first appeared in her previous novel. Charlie’s early exploration of femininity is portrayed as less sexual than sensual, consisting of a fascination with elegant outfits, perfectly poised manners, and the seductive tactile pleasure of women’s clothing: “The silkiness felt exquisite and forbidding, soothing and terrible, comforting and dangerously damning.” The author’s limpid prose also captures the subtleties of women’s lives, from catty fencing—“Elizabeth Tipton had a way of complimenting you, Minnie thought, that almost made you feel like she didn’t take you seriously”—to a 10-year-old’s clumsy stabs at sophistication to the exasperated kindness of a daughter caring for her parents. The writing is suffused with deadpan humor but resists caricatures; Charlene balances her furtive yearnings with sober restraint, and her customers aren’t small-minded yokels, but complex, curious people who are willing to expand their horizons. Heaven is a richly textured place of church socials, quilting and pie-making contests at the county fair, and neighborly help for families burdened by sickness and age. But there are darker elements, as well, such as a con man who threatens to expose Charlene, and a mystery involving a teenage girl who died after giving birth to a now-missing child. In Maher’s tapestry, the unconventional, even subversive, impulses of misfits and “ordinary” folk find a place in a convincing whole.
A quietly luminous tale of folksy gender-bending that’s entertaining and authentic.