Flavour of the south

The Romance Readers’ Book Club
by Julie L Cannon

I bought this book on my recent trip to the United States because it looked like both a fun, easy read and an authentic flavour of the southern US. It deals well with some big issues, though it doesn’t come to the conclusions that I would necessarily have hoped for or agreed with.

This book treads a fine line between sweet fluffy teen romance and deeper “issues”-ridden prose with some literary merit. For the most part it is well written and engaging but some of the exposition was clunky, especially at the start. That said, the characters are believable and the story had me interested enough that I read the whole book in one sitting.

The story is that of teenage Tammi, living a secluded life on a farm in Rigby, Georgia, with her strict religious grandparents, or rather step-grandparents, which adds an element of them doing her a favour that is the first clue that all is not actually sweetness and light. Tammi has a lot of chores to do, must dress in the shapeless clothes her grandmother picks out and isn’t allowed to listen to modern music (it’s the 1970s). Which doesn’t exactly make her Miss Popularity at school. Tammi’s only real friends are her Aunt Minna and Uncle Orr, who each live in their own house on the farm and provide an escape. Minna is colourful and eccentric, Orr is severely mentally disabled; both are devoted to young Tammi.

The story proper begins when Tammi gets hold of a stack of steamy romance novels that she knows her grandmother will disapprove of but is eager to read. She persuades a girl at school to join her Romance Readers Book Club and soon a small group is meeting secretly every four weeks to share the illicit thrill. Tammi’s burgeoning sexuality is being stifled by real life and she desperately needs this escape, but she is terrified that it is a huge sin and may be the cause of the endless drought that is threatening her family’s livelihood.

There’s quite a lot going on in Tammi’s world, with peripheral characters having their own dramas that sometimes crash into Tammi’s life. I did find it odd that, aside from sexual matters, Tammi seemed to lack curiosity – maybe she has been too well trained in politeness and not asking questions but she seemed happy to find out what’s going on in dribs and drabs. And even when it came to sex there was a for me heartbreaking scene where she realises she doesn’t actually know what all these metaphors and allusions about passionate encounters are actually getting at. She has no idea what comes after kissing.

I definitely felt a strong sense of place in this novel. Not that I’m familiar with Georgia, but it somehow persuaded me of its authenticity of accent, terminology and people. I also felt that Orr was depicted well; his friendship with Tammi was touching and his inability to cope with having steamy romance novels read aloud to him was surprisingly sad because it marked the first division between Tammi and her favourite companion.

It’s worth pointing out that this book comes from a part of the world where going to church is all-important. Cannon uses some clever misdirection on this topic but actually faith itself is never questioned, only how to interpret the word of God. Tammi’s revolt against the strictness of her grandmother is never very extreme and she repents every tiny thing. In a way, this is actually very clever, because if Tammi had broken away from everything dramatically this would be a story about how romance novels are a corrupting influence, whereas the point of course is that these novels are a natural and badly needed escape and the only harm done is the temporary confusion that Tammi would probably have gone through anyway.

There are a lot of short “excerpts” from the romance novels in question and they really did take me back to being a teenager myself, devouring these books before I had ever even kissed a boy, daydreaming obsessively of being a character in one of those exotic locales with the clichéd dark handsome man. By the time I got my first boyfriend I’d realised those books were trash and moved on but they played their part in my “coming of age” and I suspect I’m not alone in that.

One final point on this novel – the blurb on the back was particularly poor. I know a lot of people say to always ignore it anyway and if I’m buying a book because I like the author or read about it in a review I do ignore the cover as much as I can. But when I’m just browsing unknown books, that blurb is providing useful information. Theoretically. But in this case whoever wrote the blurb got the wrong end of the stick and almost certainly hadn’t read the manuscript. There are several factual errors and it misses out some of the more interesting, serious themes. That said, I’m still glad I picked it up.

First published 2008 by Plume, an imprint of the Penguin Group.