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 Fiction Review   

 

 

The Garden Angel
By Mindy Friddle
St. Martin’s Press, 2004
Hardcover, $23.95 (290 pages)
ISBN: 0-312-32674-2
 
 

Southerners will feel right at home with this quirky novel. Its eccentric characters could fit right into our own family scrapbooks, and its reverence for the past and suspicion of the encroaching future pose a conflict being played out across the length and breadth of Dixie—and might even be encapsulated in our ambivalence nowadays toward using the word “Dixie” as a synonym for the South.  

Just outside of Palmetto, S.C., in the small town of Sans Souci, Cutter Johanson lives in a dilapidated mansion that houses the comforting ghosts of her ancestry. The urban sprawl of Palmetto, which is a thinly disguised Greenville, threatens to engulf the small town that has been home to Cutter’s family for generations, but an even more immediate threat is that the death of Cutter’s grandmother has brought the house up for sale. Desperate to keep the old home place, Cutter goes to great lengths to sabotage efforts to sell it, but she knows she is fighting a losing battle. Her sister Ginny, “the pretty one,” and brother Barry, away in service, are eager to sell, and Cutter, though working two jobs, both menial, can not afford to buy them out.  

Enter a kind of Delphic fate: Ginny, a college student, is having an affair with a teacher, Daniel Byers, and is pregnant by him. His aggrieved wife Elizabeth is an emotional cripple whose agoraphobia and panic attacks keep her a virtual prisoner in her home, significantly a run-of-the-mill subdivision ranch house. Not least, Elizabeth’s main affliction is a husband so caring that he seems to have an unhealthy need for his wife to remain a cripple. Stir into that mix an anonymous telephone tip to the unsuspecting wife, and a solution to Cutter’s problem that she could never have imagined is set in motion. 

The attentive reader will see it coming when Elizabeth somehow manages to summon the strength to venture out and knock on the Johansons’ front door. When Cutter answers the door, the die is cast: Two oddballs, one strong, one weak, come face to face, and the reader, recognizing their compatibility right away even if they don’t, knows that they will wind up with each other when the dust has cleared—though in what arrangement is a nice, and logical, surprise.  

The story of how all this happens is highly readable and, for the most part, deliciously written. Ms. Friddle’s prose shines, especially with apt and poetic similes--but she comes awfully close to overdoing a good thing: Too many similes can be tiring and come across finally as the same artistic trick done too often to retain its freshness or, worse, as a kind of misdirection. Not for nothing did Gertrude Stein advise writers that in describing something it is usually better to say what a thing is than what it is like, i.e. “A rose is a rose is a rose.” 

The Garden Angel is Ms. Friddle’s first novel. It was awarded the 2003 South Carolina Fiction Prize, and she received a Fellowship in Fiction from the South Carolina Academy of Authors. She has a Web site at www.mindyfriddle.com.     

 

Robert Lamb
Southern Scribe Reviews

 

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