By Annie Barrows
The Dial Press (Random House) 2015
Genre: Historical Fiction
“Summertime and the livin’ is easy!” – Porgy and Bess
Before you open this book, it would be wise to have a pitcher of lemonade or other favorite iced beverage at hand. Barrows’ description of the West Virginia sizzling summer weather will have you sweltering. Might help to have Miles Davis playing in the background as well.
The time is Summer 1938 (three years after Porgy and Bess debuted). Miss Layla Beck has been shunned by her father, Delaware member of the U.S. Senate, for refusing to marry his choice for her husband. Her pampered sheltered life has ended and she must go “on relief” and work for the WPA Writers Project which conveniently is headed by her Uncle Gray. He appoints her to Macedonia, West Virginia, which is preparing to celebrate its sesquicentennial and has commissioned a written history. Placing her in this “backwater” small town will no doubt bring Layla to her senses and crawling back to her father’s house within a matter of days. It does not.
When she reaches Macedonia, Miss Layla cannot afford a stay at the hotel, so she rooms at the Romeyn home. Her first evening there she wears a white silk dress to dinner. She learns quickly and does not repeat that miscue.
The Romeyns used to be an influential family in the town as their father was the largest employer in town as owner of the hosiery factory. However, the eldest son Felix cast a pall over that legacy and the Romeyns are no longer involved in the factory or in the local “society.” They are a rather odd lot. All good looking and all full of quirks except the youngest Emmett, who teaches at the local high school. Felix is a traveling salesman, gone for weeks at a time, dealing in chemicals. His sister Josephine, Jottie to her family and friends, takes care of the family home and raises Felix’s two daughters, Willa and Bird. Twin sisters Mae and Minerva live at the Romeyn home during the week and go home to their respective husbands on the weekends. After their double wedding years earlier, they learned that they simply could not survive away from each other for more than a few days. Serendipitously, they found mates agreeable to this arrangement. It helps that they are drop-dead gorgeous and have the aura of old money even though they have no money anymore.
We areintroduced to this family through the eyes of 12-year-old Willa. Her part of the story is told in the first person. Like most 12-year-olds, she tells it as she sees it. She and 9-year-old Bird (Eudora) visit their mother twice a year. Her parents are divorced but neither has remarried. Mom is living in sin (state of her soul, not the name of the town) a few cities over with her boyfriend. The girls are used to this situation and accept that Jottie, a most beloved aunt to each of them, is their source of maternal love and guidance. Jottie has never married or even “kept company” with anyone since the tragic death almost two decades prior of the young man she loved.
When Miss Layla Beck comes to town to write the history of this little burg, we learn everyone’s story! At first, Willa is wowed by Miss Layla Beck and determines to be her research assistant. When that does not work out, Willa decides to research her own life and all the things that puzzle her. Apparently no one told her to be careful what she asked for. The truth of the downfall of the Romeyn family is told in layers through Willa’s “research,” Miss Layla Beck’s historical research, and Jottie’s memories. The author uses first person observations by Willa, letters by and to Miss Layla Beck, and third person narrative. If you are not a fan of the correspondence format, it is rather minimal and some of the letters are very humorous.
I gave this story a 3.75 because I really hated the ending. Otherwise, it would have a 4.0. The characters are interesting, although not all are likable, humor is spread throughout the story, and the plot’s multilayered reveal kept me interested. This is not The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society quality, but it is still a satisfying read. Even though I did not like the ending, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride there. Don’t forget that pitcher of lemonade.
Available just about everywhere, including Collier County Public Library, in every format including paperback.
Happy 239th Fourth of July to everyone!
Maggie Gust has been an avid reader all her life. Her past includes working as a teacher as well as various occupations in the health care field. She shares a hometown with Abraham Lincoln, Springfield, Illinois, but Florida has been her home since 1993. Genealogy, walking on the beach, reading, movies and writing, are among her pursuits outside of work. She is self employed and works from her Naples home.