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Fiction Review    

 

 

Lunch at the Piccadilly
By Clyde Edgerton
Algonquin Books at Chapel Hill, 2003
Hardcover, $22.95 (264 pages)
ISBN: 1565121953
 
 
 

North Carolina author Clyde Edgerton is known for making his readers laugh at the foibles and follies of the best-intentioned, saltiest salts of the earth.  No one has a better ear for Southern small-town dialogue and no one can recreate a bona fide fire-and-brimstone Baptist sermon more convincingly, or more hilariously.  But what endears Edgerton to his readers is not just his sense of humor—which is excellent—but his obvious respect and affection for the characters that people his stories.  He tells a great tall tale, but his is a kindly nature. 

That magic combination of humor and affection is very much in evidence in Lunch at the Piccadilly, Edgerton’s long awaited new novel. But readers, especially baby boomers with elderly parents and relatives, may find that this book hits exceptionally close to home. The story opens with the indomitable Lil Olive, a ninety year old woman and a force to be reckoned with.  She has just moved in to the Rosehaven Nursing Home following a bad fall.  She thinks it will be a short stay, but her nephew Carl secretly knows better.  To him is left the unhappy task of guiding his favorite aunt through the slow process of giving up her independence.  She can’t stay in her apartment because of the dangerous stairs.  She can’t balance her checkbook, because she forgets things from one moment to the next. Worst of all, she needs to say good bye to her 89 maroon Oldsmobile, because even though her drivers license doesn’t expire until she is 97, Carl knows she had no business behind the wheel.  Carl is basically a sweet man who can’t bear to disappoint his Aunt Lil, and more than a little at sea as he tries to do what is right without denying any more of her dignity or independence than he absolutely has to.    

It is a long and painful process of losing ground, as anyone who has cared for an elderly relative can attest.  But Lunch at the Piccadilly explores the vagaries of aging with what reviewers call his “trademark sense of humor”.  That means readers will laugh with his characters, not at them, as they navigate the uncertain territory of getting old. It is a fine line and Edgerton’s good instincts keep the reader from crossing it.  One chuckles as Lil  and her friends discuss whether or not a resident’s glass eye comes out at night.  One sympathizes with Carl’s reluctance to tell Aunt Lil she can’t drive.  There is even a kind of grace to be found, as Carl discovers, in indulging in some of the odder notions of the nursing home residents—like Reverend L. Ray Flowers’ religious movement to combine churches and nursing homes into a single institution (Nurches of America).   

But mostly, like Carl, the reader will ache.  It is hard to watch the slow disintegration of a loved one, and hard to adjust—as Carl tries—to taking care of a person who has always taken care of us.  Becoming a caregiver is easy to plan for, but almost impossible to prepare for.

The most carefully worded power of attorney doesn’t tell you how to have a conversation with someone you love when they don’t know where they are, or worse- who you are.   

Lunch at the Piccadilly is a funny book, and much will no doubt be made of the exploits of the Rosehaven residents as they fight their inevitable fate.  But the humor shouldn’t blind anyone to the real message behind this story; Edgerton has written, not a comic novel, but a touching tribute to the bravery of the aged, and the heroism of their families.  Carl, Lil, and of all the residents of Rosehaven—even the lady with the glass eye who cusses like a sailor are imbued with an irrefutable dignity.  They have lost much, but they still have their sense of humor.  As one social worker says after hearing a Nurches of America sermon; “you have to laugh, because otherwise you would cry”. The heroes in this story have all learned to laugh, god bless them.  We should be so lucky when our turn comes. 

 

Nicki Leone
Southern Scribe Reviews

 

 

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