1980. 228 pages. Hardcover.
From: the public library
For the challenge: 2nd Reading Challenge
In a nutshell:
Crystal Spangler lives in a small Appalachian town. She’s pretty and usually eager to please others and fulfill their expectations, but there are flashes of independence. The book follows her from her entrance into junior high up through her early thirties. She enjoys popularity among her peers and with boys, explores charismatic Christianity, and has success in beauty pageants. Her later life takes her away from Appalachia, but she eventually returns.
I read and loved Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies, and enjoyed the return to Smith’s Appalachia. Both books are stuffed with story. Even very minor characters usually get fascinating backstories or amusing mini-portraits. Take this brief sketch of another pageant contestant:
Suetta Wheeler, a senior, was Miss Claytor Lake last summer; she’ll be really embarrassed if she doesn’t get this one too. If she could just wear her bathing suit, Suetta knows she could win. Her legs are her best feature, she thinks. But the Junior Women vetoed bathing suits twenty-six to two; bathing suits simply are not in good taste. Suetta grinds her teeth at Crystal. Crystal smiles.
Crystal is a bit of an enigma, both to the reader and to other characters. Rocked early on in the story by a death in her family, Crystal swings from apparent contentment to periods of high emotion, even hysteria. The book riffles through multiple perspectives, but the predominant viewpoints belong to Crystal and her childhood friend, Agnes, who is as practical as Crystal is flighty.
Lee Smith knows how to tell a good story, and this one kept me entertained throughout with humor, spot-on descriptions, a lively cast of characters, and a looming sense of tragedy.
There was one thing I had mixed feelings about, and it was how Lee Smith kept the reader in the dark regarding an event that happens in Crystal’s teenage years. She doesn’t reveal the details of this event until the end. I think anyone could guess what had happened, so the revelation is not necessarily surprising. But I think that perhaps too much was left unsaid about it, and the scene where Crystal recollects the memory of the event comes out somewhat muddled. I’m not sure what exactly happens there, and I think knowing more would have made the ending stronger.
I liked Black Mountain Breakdown a lot, because I love Lee Smith’s writing and her sense of place and people and story. Fair and Tender Ladies is definitely the better book though. Fair and Tender Ladies’ main character, Ivy Rowe, is much more spirited and independent. She is in fact, one of my favorite literary characters of all time. Also, Ivy Rowe is not a town-girl like Crystal, but lives up in a holler for much of her childhood and is from a much earlier time period. Old and rural ways and customs thus play a bigger part and give Fair and Tender Ladies an almost exotic appeal. In addition, Fair and Tender Ladies is more epic, covering a longer span of years. Finally, it is an epistolary novel, which done right is a fantastic literary form.
So, take this post as an overall recommendation for the writing of Lee Smith, and a specific recommendation to read Fair and Tender Ladies first, and then if you like that, read Black Mountain Breakdown. Based on these two books, I think I’ll eventually track down and read everything that she has written.