Jill McCorkle is one of our finest short story writers, and at first her new novel seems to be a series of loosely connected short stories. Set in the Pine Haven Retirement home in the town she has named Fulton, N.C., each chapter focuses on one of the people who live or work there. Most are Southerners but they come from very different backgrounds and seem to have little in common. But as she goes on their stories begin to blend, and by the end we are not only deeply moved, but see why she wrote it the way she did.
The first one we meet is Joanna. She is a hospice volunteer, but she listens to their stories, earns their trust, and most important, keeps a journal. Often it contains the last thoughts of residents who, as is inevitable in such places, come to the end of their lives. But, as you might expect from a writer known for her humor, the book is never depressing and often quite funny.
Next we are introduced to Carolina Jessamine, named after a plant her mother saw while making love in an arboretum. She never knew her father. C.J., as she calls herself, is the warm-hearted but foul-mouthed owner of a beauty shop. Her beautiful body is covered with tattoos and often has been used by men who can give her what she needs. She has a little boy whom she frequently leaves with Joanna when she is otherwise occupied.
Sadie Randolph is a former teacher at the end of her life who looks back on a happy marriage, wonderful children and believes people are still 8 years old in their hearts. Rachel Silverman is widowed and came South to be near the love of her life, who is buried in a cemetery next to the home. Stanley Stone was a prominent lawyer, but now he complains a lot, making lewd and insulting comments about everyone. His feigned dementia, it turns out, is put on for a reason he is unwilling to explain.
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And there is Abby Palmer, a precocious 12-year-old tomboy who prefers the elderly residents of Pine Haven to the children her social-climbing mother wants her to associate with. Kendra Palmer is the mother from hell. She had wanted Ben, her husband, to be a lawyer but he is content with running the local movie house and performing as a magician. He was Joanna's best friend in childhood, and the demands of his wife are pushing him toward her again.
Running through the book is the story of Dollbaby, a scruffy little dog that Abby deeply loves, only to have him disappear. The little girl is heartbroken, and clings to the idea that she will return. Her moher hated the dog, and has reasons to know she will not come home.
There are more colorful characters, but this will give you the idea. Almost every reviewer has praised her ability to create quirky but believable people and write lively and convincing dialog, and these skills are very evident in this remarkable novel. Her first in 17 years ("Carolina Moon" came out in 1996), it is also one of her best. The title, as Booklist put it, shows that "old age can give us a second chance to see ourselves rightly, to be truer to those we love, and inspire those we leave behind."
Much of her writing is drawn from her own life, and from the notes she is constantly taking. She records thoughts and ideas and the funny and insightful things people say and do and "eventually there are enough pieces so that a whole begins to come into view." Her father died 20 years ago, but she remembers what he said as he was dying. Looking about him at his family he said, "You are my heart. That's all that there is." She hopes that her own memories will evoke other memories in those who read her. She calls it "a love song to memory and life." In the end, she says, "That's all there is."
Don McKinney reviews books by South and North Carolina writers.