Here is another book by Michael Lee West, completely fictional this time, and it’s the perfect novel for those of you who enjoy the dark Southern Gothic side of life. I unabashedly cop to a writer crush on Mrs. West. It’s hard not to support a nurse-turned-writer (so much like myself) who happens to live in my hometown. She’s not only a wicked writer but knows her way around a kitchen. She runs a blog that will add to the numbers on your scale in the morning. Perhaps one day I’ll get the pleasure of meeting her in person, and then we can exchange baked ham recipes while divulging future plot lines.
“She Flew the Coop” is one of West’s first books, and I’ll say it: one of her hands down best. It begins in Limoges, Louisiana, 1952, and Olive Nepper has just downed a coke laced with her Momma’s rose poison because an important member of Limoges society has gotten her in the family way. While Olive drifts in a coma, the world of Limoges is slowly revealed through the characters’ reactions to Olive’s pregnancy and suicide attempt as well as the revelations of their hopes, flaws, and struggles against the prison that life in small-town Limoges can be.
Much of the ensuing drama revolves around Olive’s parents, Henry and Vangie Nepper, both pillars of the community. Both are suffering from a mid-life crisis, the effects of which are slowly ripping their marriage apart without either realizing it. Vangie, who has long been treated as a simpleton, has no real role in life other than to serve Henry’s meals and care for Olive. She yearns to have control but lacks the bravery to grab it. Henry Nepper, the town pharmacist, is unmistakeably out of love with his aging wife, and has been having an affair with his soda counter girl and the local hussy, DeeDee Robichaux.
“She Flew the Coop” is bursting with dozens of other colorful supporting characters that feel as fresh as if you pulled them off your sidewalk, and their stories are sure to amuse you, horrify you, or simply make you think. From the errant preacher to the woman-crazy funeral home embalmer, they’re all here, and they paint with dark humor the kind of life you find in many towns–and not just Southern ones. Mrs. West has an innate gift at taking the “stereotypical” character and turning it on its ear so that it is reinvigorated and full of life.
A word of warning: While this book is not to be compared with many popular books such as erotica novels which shall go nameless, it is not a book for children. Sexual situations are portrayed in detail and may not be for everyone. Mature language is utilized, and offensive crimes are committed. That being said, it is one of the most thorough, detailed odes to “civilized society” in a rural town that I have read in a long time which is why I recommend it. The prose is lush, descriptive, and bursting with nuances. It is not a book to be quickly skimmed under a beach umbrella but to be slowly savored. The writing is mature, articulate, and has the ability to transport the reader word by word to a town that feels as if you’ve always lived there. If that isn’t enough for the reader, Mrs. West artfully sprinkles in a few recipes as you read so that they seem a part of the novel itself, and they truly are.
In parting, some delicious quotes:
“Gardens come and go, but I find myself getting attached to certain perenials. My tulips are bridesmaids with fat faces and good postures. Hollyhocks are long-necked sisters. Daffodils are young girls running out of a white church, sun shining on their heads. Peonies are pink-haired ladies, so full and stooped you have to tie them up with string. And roses are nothing but (I hate to say it) bitches–pretty show-offs who’ll draw blood if you don’t handle them just right.”
“The first time I saw my father-in-law’s cotton, I though of the Original Sin, gardening being the root of the South’s downfall.”
“Now that Olive was grown, I didn’t know what to do with myself. You could build your life around one single thing, like a view or a child, but that was risky. You had so much to lose.”
If you enjoy Southern Gothic fiction, pick up “She Flew the Coop”, and let us know what you think.