The Fixer Upper by Mary Kay Andrews
Reasons for reading: I really like Andrews' books; final book for the Southern Challenge 2009
Summary: "After her boss in a high-powered Washington public relations firm is caught in a political scandal, fledgling lobbyist Dempsey Jo Killebrew is left almost broke, unemployed, and homeless. Out of options, she reluctantly accepts her father's offer to help refurbish Birdsong, the old family place he recently inherited in Guthrie, Georgia.
But, oh, is Dempsey in for a surprise when she arrives in Guthrie. "Bird Droppings" would more aptly describe the moldering Pepto Bismol-pink dump with duct-taped windows and a driveway full of junk. There's also a murderously grumpy old lady, one of Dempsey's distant relations, who has claimed squatter's rights and isn't moving out. Ever.
All Dempsey can do is roll up her sleeves and get to work. And before long, what started as a job of necessity somehow becomes a labor of love and, ultimately, a journey that takes her to a place she never expected -back home again."
First line: "At the end of the very worst day of my life up until that point, my roommates and I sat in a back booth at the Filibuster, a crappy bar on a crappy street on the outskirts of Georgetown, as the endless footage of my public demise played itself out again and again on the television set mounted on the wall directly in front of us."
My thoughts: Another winner from Andrews! At first Dempsey seems like a smart but slightly shallow and definitely naive young lobbyist on the rise, with the typical parent issues (distant father, mother who wants to change her). But when she takes of the incredibly daunting challenge of Birdsong, she becomes fiercely determined and lets life in Guthrie get under her skin.
Ella Kate, the elderly squatter, is at first a thoroughly unlikeable object of pity, but the longer we know her, brief flashes of humanity and even humour peek through her hard facade.
I didn't find Tee Berryhill, son of Dempsey's lawyer and her love interest, quite as sexy as the manly chef from Andrews' Deep Dish, but he was smart and kind and funny. The other secondary characters, including Tee's intelligent, dignified, kind father and a randy, much-married real estate agent who insists on painting over Birdsong's awful pink, help flesh out the story.
Dempsey really comes into her own, not only by conquering the house, but by standing up to her sleazy ex-boss and helping the FBI nab him. It's no surprise that she does, but the scene in which she accomplishes it is one of the best in the book, so I won't spoil it!
This was a good one for the Southern challenge - tiny Guthrie and its inhabitants, as well as Birdsong, are almost characters in themselves. Small-town life, the importance of home, mistrust of outsiders, quirky local characters, family secrets as well as both family loyalty and feuds, crumbling remnants of wealthy glory days...all things I associate with Southern lit.