Sunday, April 13, 2014

"Nowhere But Home," by Liza Palmer

The Protagonist: Queen Elizabeth "Queenie" Wake. A shiftless chef whose temper has gotten her fired from more jobs than she can count
Her Angst: When her latest termination leaves her with no job or home, she's forced to return to the insular, gossipy Texas small town of her childhood to regroup. The same town that was happy to tar her and her sister with the same slutty brush.

Secondary Cast:

Merry Carole: Queenie's sister, who remained in North Star after getting knocked up and abandoned at 17 by Wes, one of North Star's privileged sons. She runs a hair salon, and her son is quarterback of the football team.

Cal: Merry Carole's adorable and big-hearted 15-year-old son. He's earned the town's approval for his football skills, but struggles with how his loving mother is still slandered as the town whore.

Everett: Son of one of the ruling families of North Star, and the love of Queenie's life. However, he never acknowledged their relationship in public and chose to marry a girl from a "suitable" family instead. He still loves Queenie, but his oh-so-important "responsibilities" prevent him from making it public.

Laurel: North Star's resident Mean Girl and the woman Everett married (then divorced!) instead of Queenie. Has an understandable dislike of Queenie.

Whitney: Another Mean Girl who wound up marrying Wes. She has never stopped tormenting Merry Carole - for a secretly painful and personal reason.

Wes: A member of one of North Star's better families, he and Whitney seem like the perfect couple - although their mutual dark secret prevents them from being truly happy.

Piggy Peggy: A vicious and obsequious bully who runs the North Star gossip mill at the behest of Laurel and Whitney.

The Word: Reading Nowhere But Home was like eating a donut. Maybe a whole box of donuts - I scarfed my way through the warm, delicious sweetness, even though I knew while I was reading it that it wasn't very good. Even then, I couldn't quit until I licked the last trace of glaze off my fingers.

Queen Elizabeth Wake ("Queenie" for short) has spent the last ten years living out of a suitcase, moving from town to town, cooking at restaurant after restaurant, until her smart mouth gets her fired and she has to move on. She loses her latest job because she yelled at a customer who put ketchup on his eggs. A frustrated and defeated Queenie moves back in with her sister Merry Carole in their hometown of North Star, Texas, to get her bearings and rethink her future.

North Star holds nothing but bad memories for Queenie - as the daughters of the town slut, she and Merry Carole were labelled as little better than trash. For Queenie, the last straw came when the love of her life, North Star royalty Everett Coburn, chose to marry the girl his parents picked out rather than acknowledge their secret affair. Everett is still there when she returns - good news? He's divorced and still loves her. Bad news? He still wants to keep it on the down-low.

Nowhere But Home works, I think, because of a potent (if imperfectly-mixed) combination of past scandal, present drama, and climatic build-up. For instance, Queenie's sister Merry Carole finds herself in an awkward position when the illegitimate son the town shunned her for becomes North Star's star quarterback. Will the Church of Texas Football force townsfolk to accept Merry Carole again?

Or how about Queenie's new job? In order to pad her savings as she works things out, she accepts a gig at a local prison cooking last meals for death row inmates. In so doing, she regains her faith in southern comfort food (smoked brisket! Chicken fried steak!), even though she's never comfortable with who she's actually cooking for.

It's all juicy, fizzy drama. So what's the downside? Well, the writing isn't that exceptional - quite the opposite, actually. The writing is simple, workmanlike and often repetitive. You can't turn a page without a character flushing, dabbing at their mascara-black tears with a handkerchief, or collapsing into sobs at the drop of a hat.

As well, for all the deliciously tense build up Palmer develops with the multitude of secret sins bubbling beneath North Star's surface, the novel stumbles with the ultimate pay off. I felt a lot of the conflict resolved itself disappointingly easily. In fact, the majority of those Big Secret Reveals end with, "Oh that? Everyone's known for years!" Thanks, Small Town Hive Mind stereotype. Way to suck the wind out of a dramatic moment.

And finally - I couldn't sympathize very much with Queenie's love interest, Everett - the Poor Little Rich Boy whose family honour is just soooo important that he can't be with her in public. There's a revelation towards the end that sort of explains why he behaved that way towards Queenie as a teen, but it doesn't explain his preference for secrecy as an adult. His "be my secret mistress, boo hoo you don't understand my responsibilities" bit at the novel's start cast him down several pegs in my estimation, pegs he never really makes back. I kept hoping Queenie would toss him over and find someone better.

So the novel doesn't really stick the landing, and the writing (or at least the writing that doesn't involve lovingly-described fried Southern food) isn't anything to shake a stick at, but I suppose this is one of those novels where the addictively enjoyable journey is worth the sub-par destination.

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