Garvin (A Faithful Son, 2016) tells the story of a 13-year-old orphan sent to live with her forthright great-aunt in this novel.
When Poppy Wainwright’s grandmother dies, she travels from her home in Arkansas to live with her grandmother’s older sister, Sookie, in Savannah, Georgia. “Your Grandma Lainey was a self-righteous nit-wit,” Sookie tells Poppy upon their first meeting, “and if I had the gumption, I’d drive myself up to Mountain Home and spit on her freshly dug grave.” Sookie is everything Poppy’s grandmother was not: atheistic, slovenly, suspicious, prone to vendettas, and completely lacking any verbal filter. Yet there’s much that this foulmouthed, long-lived woman has to teach young Sookie about the world and how to be a woman in it. Sookie initially warns Poppy away from the locals—particularly the neighbor boys, with whom the old woman participates in an ongoing feud. Poppy manages to befriend Donita Pendergast, a young woman from church. As Poppy and Sookie become involved with Donita’s fraught relationship with her husband, Poppy learns some things about her own troubled family history from her great aunt—including some insight into how Sookie became so cynical. Following two women at either end of life, this novel is a fine submission in the long tradition of Southern bildungsromans. Garvin animates his characters with wonderfully vulgar dialogue, and he isn’t afraid to turn the reader’s stomach just a bit with his physical descriptions; for example, he makes sure to include the detail that “Yellow cataracts blanketed [Sookie’s] eyes, like two blue marbles coated by lemon custard.” The author also manages to tackle serious issues of sexuality and domestic violence while keeping the book lighthearted and highly readable. If he errs, it’s in his maximalism: the book feels bloated at more than 350 pages, in part due to the fact that he provides some pieces of information three or four times—usually, it seems, because he simply can’t decide which phrasing he likes best. Some readers may also find the tone too cute by half, but others who subscribe to Garvin’s larger-than-life vision won’t want it to end.
An often charming and funny coming-of-age tale.