Perhaps because Beth Hoffman‘s debut is read so charmingly by Jenna Lamia, who also narrated Kathryn Stockett‘s bestseller The Help, I couldn’t help making endless comparisons … both Hoffman and Stockett write of the racially divided South a few generations past, populated by strong feisty women, and of course the requisite wise caregiver who must of course be African American. Line the two books up, and Stockett wins hands down with the better read; that said, she’s currently being sued by her brother’s maid for stealing both name and personal story. Uh-oh.
So back to Hoffman’s bevy of women who revolve around one 12-year-old Cecilia Rose Honeycutt, otherwise called CeeCee. Only 12, CeeCee has spent most of her young life caring for her mother Camille, who like her flowering southern namesake couldn’t survive being transplanted to the harsher Yankee North climate. The 1951 Vidalia Onion Queen of Georgia never regains her glory, and by the summer of 1967, she’s barely hanging on to her sanity. Longing to return home to the South, Camille finds a different route out of her misery, leaving a shocked and bereft little girl behind.
Enter great-aunt Tallulah Caldwell, who whisks CeeCee away and generously welcomes her into a new life of sudden privilege and wealth in Savannah. And while she’s busy with her society friends and saving landmark homes, CeeCee is fed, scolded, hugged, regaled, bolstered, and unconditionally loved by Tootie’s longtime cook Oletta … who will, of course, be the one to open CeeCee’s eyes to the racial divide and share with her a world beyond the posh ladies-who-lunch.
Why it took 12 years to rescue this neglected child, or even check on her prodigal mother (Tootie apparently visited just once), makes Tootie’s deus ex machina-arrival a bit too convenient. Mammy-like Oletta is ultimately another flat caricature, complete with her eternal gratitude to Tootie and her late husband for how well they have always treated her. As caring as Tootie seems to be, she remains encased in her white privilege – sending a gift in the name of southern hospitality to her injured neighbor in spite of that neighbor’s vile treatment of African Americans is more important than considering Oletta’s feelings when Oletta herself has to bake the gift!
Most of what I’ve heard about Hoffman’s debut has been about its fluffy enjoyment factor, a good ol’ Southern (gothic) read complete with the eccentric and insane. But I found myself more disturbed than charmed, perplexed than entertained. Where Stockett succeeds is her ability to take potentially stock (pun not intended, really!) characters and imbue them with unique self-determination. In spite of vast potential (racially motivated crime, inherited mental illness), Hoffman disappointedly never moves beyond a single dimension; some might find that satisfying enough for a beach read (or listen, in my case), but 20/20 hindsight tells me those 10+ hours of audible investment would have proved more memorable elsewhere.
Readers: Young Adult, Adult