by Shelby Hearon
Knopf, 259 pp., $23
Adults whose families of origin are still extant know the afternoon daydream of being born an orphan and, then, marrying an equally hot and sexually depraved orphan. It is a lovely pastime, especially during the holidays, when intergenerational contact is more frequent and of greater duration than one has trained for.
The protagonist of novelist Shelby Hearon's 15th novel, Ella in Bloom, practices another useful dodge in approaching this age-old problem: Hie thee to the humid reaches of Louisiana, where you struggle to live an authentic, if somewhat circumscribed, life, and fictionalize an existence designed to please the old folks back home in Texas. Struggle to maintain your accreting fictions during the brief and infrequent visits back home, and shore up the exaggerations, airs, and white lies through artful letter writing. There's nothing like a little backstory to make Momma's bitchery more interesting and easier to bear, so here's what happens: Our heroine, Ella, has lived a life in the shadow of her favored older sister, Terrell, who had the grace to marry well, flourish as a soccer mom, and then die before her less-than-perfect moments came to light. Terrell's absence drives Ella to even greater efforts to favorably impress her sharply critical mother. Along the way, family mysteries are solved, unearthed, resolved, and accepted.
Hearon's sharp sense of class cuts finer than the blade on the meat-slicer in gourmet delicatessens. The infinite gradations of social class are felt most keenly by those who are moving -- either by design or the inexorable operation of applied economics -- between them. Ella, for all her lovely (and decidedly imaginative) letters to her mother about linen dresses, Old Metairie social events, and her antique rose garden, actually lives in a tatty little duplex which floods in heavy dew, and struggles to put peanut butter on the table for her adolescent daughter Birdie by plant-sitting for her wealthier neighbors when they flee the summer heat to the mountains or Europe.
The novel grew on me quite slowly, but toward the end, I was loath to part with Ella, her daughter Birdie, her nephew Bailey, and her surviving brother-in-law Red. I loved them and wanted better lives for them all. Hearon is a complete master at limning a character in a few words -- a line of dialogue here and there. Her adolescents are not slang-spouting clichés but creatures living full of apprehension and bravado as they lurch toward their own places in the world. I ached for them, was warmed by them, and, finally, found their hope contagious. Hearon's touch is just right, not sentimental or condescending. In particular, I fell in love with the cello-playing Birdie, who may be the best daughter in all of fiction.
Ella does come into her own in the course of the novel. Of course, it is difficult to read about a character in "bloom" without hearing the Joycean hymn of affirmation, but the overall model here is more Jane Austen. Hearon's world is nuanced, subtle, surprisingly well-delineated, and engrossing. It is at once complex and simply told, dreamy and gritty, altogether a marvelous achievement. Ella in Bloom is a book that should grow the garden of Shelby Hearon's readership.
Tom Doyal is working on a collection of short stories set in rural Texas.
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