I remember how huge Adriana Trigiani’s Big Stone Gap was when it first came out; this was a book that women came to Sunday School talking about, read during the week, and passed along to another reader the next Sunday. I maintain that in the year 2000, word of mouth had spread Big Stone Gap through women’s circles of probably many southern church communities. Well, I guess I was just 14 years behind schedule.
Ave Maria Mulligan is our unconventional narrator—at least, unconventional by the standards of Big Stone Gap, Virginia. She’s 35 and unmarried and is such a part of the town that, as the pharmacist, knows just how to handle everyone’s little eccentricities. Her life never seemed unpredictable but suddenly it’s like the stars are out of line and everything new is happening at once, offering Ave Maria new opportunities she never even imagine. I guess I have to go with the church ladies on this one; wonderfully quirky and lighthearted with a main character to root for—I can understand the mass appeal, because you just want to see where Ave Maria’s life leads her. Fortunately for me now in 2014, the success of this one did lead to three more in the series!
So Beth Patillo’s Jane Austen Ruined My Life is one I would maaaaybe consider more as “chick-lit” than “women’s fiction,” because it’s really just a romance at its root. But hey, we’re a judgment-free zone on this blog, and chick-lit is definitely fine by me! (Although, I will complain if some of their premises are just ridiculous!!) Also to note, this book is the first in Patillo’s series of Austen-inspired novels, but they’re each an independent story, not a continuous series.
In Jane Austen Ruined My Life, Emma is an English professor that has just been discredited both personally and professionally—her god of a professor husband has just cheated on her and subsequently that “other woman,” formerly her own TA, has accused Emma of stealing work and calling it her own. To escape, Emma heads to a cousin’s in the London suburbs to regroup and try and find the famed but elusive lost letters of Jane Austen. If you’ve read any amount of chick-lit, you can probably figure out how the plot is going to go, but it’s quick and enjoyable, and the extra mystery of Jane Austen letters is intriguing. Plus, Patillo has a nice, conversational writing style that is lighthearted and not obnoxious.
My favorite of this batch was an NPR-featured book, The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore. This story follows three friends—Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean—from their adolescent life in the 60s to their middle-aged present. They’ve always lived in their same Indiana town with the one constant in their life being Earl’s diner, where you can find them in their same booth every Sunday for lunch.
Though I wasn’t very impressed with this at the beginning, I got so into it that I read the whole thing in about a day. The characters are wonderful; Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean are so incredibly different from each other, and Moore, thankfully, treats them equally, giving life to all three of his characters in vivid detail. The storytelling is compelling with perspective hopping from past memory to present-day, giving the reader the insight needed to understand the depth of Moore’s “Supremes.” It’s obviously a character-driven, rather than plot-driven, story, and the best kind where you barely care what it is that happens because the entertainment is in reading how your characters deal with it. I find it amazing how well this male author voiced three very distinct women characters! The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat tells the story of very normal things happening to very normal (but extraordinary, lovable) individuals with humor, wit, and a lot of heart—much more than just a “fun” read.