Saturday, May 26, 2007

Review: Girl From the South

I haven't done many reviews in a long time, I need to get caught up. I'm actually not a very good reviewer, I get too caught up in the details. But here's an alphabet challenge one I did when I first started.

Title: Girl From the South
Author: Joanna Trollope
Rating: 3 1/2 stars

Review: I've always meant to read some Joanna Trollope and the Alphabet Challenge gave me the push - T is for Trollope! (That sounds like a cross between Sue Grafton and a ye olde fashioned erotic novel!)

I've always associated her with being a quintessentially English writer, but what do I find when I read my first JT book? Most of it is set in America! (Okay, the title sort of gave that away.) Not that I minded, I'm still very much loving Southern-themed books and this one combines Charleston (where I'm dying to go) with London (where I'm dying to return). Gillon Stokes is the titular girl from the South, but she's not a Southern belle. Her macho brother Cooper loves to tease Gillon for her different ways (of course, Cooper has a huge debt and is actually unhappy with his life). Gillon's sister Ashley is a perfect Southern wife (beautiful, a wonderful hostess, always smiling) and her grandmama Sarah is a very typical Southern matriarch (the city of Charleston and her memories of the past are her life), but Gillon doesn't fit in. She's neither a career woman like her psychiatrist mother Martha or a wife like Ashley - she flits from one low-paying job in the art world to another and often leaves Charleston, but always comes back.

When Gillon's internship at a small Charleston gallery ends, her boss tells her about a job with an art conservator in England and before she knows it, she's living in a dank hostel in London and working as a researcher in the conservator's backyard studio - steps away from his bratty children and filthy house. Gillon meets Tilly at a party for the small arts magazine where Tilly works and the girls hit it off. Tilly invites Gillon to move into her flat with her and her boyfriend, Henry, a not-too-successful wildlife photographer. Henry and Tilly are reaching a crisis point - Tilly wants to get married, Henry doesn't and neither of them know what to do. One day Gillon describes Charleston's wetlands to Henry and spontaneously semi-invites him, saying her father would love to show him around. This is the catalyst Henry needs - just as Tilly has decided to leave him because she can't stand their inertia anymore, he leaves her first and goes home with Gillon, who's horrified to have hurt Tilly, even by accident.

Henry adores Charleston and Gillon's welcoming family. Henry has a sister he's friendly but not close with and a mother who turned to bitterness after Henry's father left. Also, his photographic creativity is fired by the birds and landscape of the South. A bit predictably, Henry and Gillon get together while Tilly is suffering back in London and sort of getting together with Henry's best friend William.

Things wrap up quite nicely but not too perfectly at the end, with Tilly being okay and not dependent on a man for her happiness, Henry and Gillon falling in love their way, without any stifling demands, and Gillon learns a lot about her family and that they're not as perfect as they seem, but they're still hers and she loves them.

Family is, obviously, a big theme in this book. Gillon's relationship with hers improves over the course of the book - they stop viewing her as a misfit (although they wish she'd settle down and stay in Charleston) and actually start realizing she's an important part of their lives, rather than the black sheep. Henry and Tilly both come from dysfunctional families but they reconnect with them - Henry gains a new appreciation for his sister, who shares his experience with their bitter mother and absent father and Tilly re-connects with her rather self-centred but loving mother. Gillon will always come back to Charleston and our families will always be our families.

Another theme is choices. The late 20/early 30-something characters are shown as having so many choices they can't decide on anything (they're all floundering because they're searching for a perfect mate, job, place to live). Those who do make choices are unhappy with them. Tilly has been with Henry and in the same job for a decade and neither is making her happy anymore. Ashley chose the role of ideal wife but when she becomes a mother, she finds herself in a situation she can't handle perfectly, and feels ashamed. The older generation had fewer choices, bound by tradition and their roles in society. Grandmama Sarah reveals that perhaps marrying the first man who asked her wasn't the best plan. Gillon's mother Martha chose to defy tradition by focusing on her pyschiatric practice rather than her family and this decision is starting to wear thin with her husband, Boone.

I found it a good read, especially since I'm in my Southern phase. It didn't set me on fire or anything, but it was an enjoyable story. I'll definitely read more of Joanna Trollope to see what I've been missing all this time.

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