To say that the main characters and narrators in LUCKY SOUTHERN WOMEN, by Susannah Eannes, are aspects of the same a duality is to risk stripping the story from its rich complexity. Yet it is difficult to see Phoebe and Sophie as irreducibly distinct. Friends since pre-adolescence, these two Alabama natives evoke light and shade, fire and water, yin and ying. They are, essentially, two aspects of a culture whose icons include opposites such as Scarlett O’Hara and Harriet Tubman. But it is not far-fetched to conclude that their differences helps cement their relationship. Cool headed, grounded, analytical Phoebe needs dramatic, romantic, fanciful Sophie to jolt her out of her primness. Sophie, on the other hand, needs Phoebe to be her to remind her of the advantages of seeming balanced and conventional. In Eanes’s South, the tendency to deviate from conventional morality is not forbidden. What is forbidden is the act of flaunting one’s unsual proclivities.
Both Phoebe and Sophie know very well that until further notice, life is all about appearances. Adultery is not as huge a sin as making one’s extramarital dalliance public. Anyone can be mentally ill, fragmented, irreparably scarred as long as they do it discreetly. Sweep the oddities under the carpet, wear pretty silk dresses, go to church on Sundays, and keep the community from having to deal with unpalatable realities such and incest and spouse abuse, and everything will be as sweet as pie. This knowledge is only a small part of what these friends share. Both yearn for profound changes. Both want to transcend povert and emotional neglect. Both want to overcome the obstacles placed in their paths by inadequate families—here Eanes joins William Faulkner and Eudora Welty as a chronicler of magnificently quirky, if not out-and-out crackpots—both want, above all stability, respectability and and a good economic situation. That marriage is the only solution they find for their problems seems anachronistic a good couple of decades into American women’s struggle for equality. Eanes prepares the reader to understand that in her characyters’ south, time dos not move as rapidly as it does up North. Red Level, Alabama, is impervious to its passage. Trapped in the past like a fly in amber, it is “…as dry, dusty, and dead-end a place you can have… Here nothing has changed since Prohibition, and people seem downright proud of their ignorance.”
As in all good stories, neither Phoebe nor Sophie are static characters. They grow and they change as they progress towards their dreams. They marry, they have children, they get jobs and they begin the process of becoming adults. Phoebe, the more ambitious of the pair, believes that education is the key to an independent life. Sophie, the autodidact, the dreamer, the poet, thinks that love’s transformative power is the answers to the questions she has begun to ask about her life. Being a doctor’s wife, owning a clothes shop, raising perfect children is not enough. She craves the intoxication of an earlier romance, a reprise of the all consuming passion she felt for the former beau she traded for stultifying domesticity. When she meets him again, seven years after he joined the army and left her to wait for him like a southern Penelope, all hell—a discreet kind of hell, mind you– breaks lose. Just as Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and other literary adulterers, she sees her dull husband for what he is. An affair with her former beau is an unavoidable cataclismand if the cataclism comes with the gift of a Porsche, who can blame her?
Sensible Phoebe reacts to these shenanigans by going into full Jimminy Cricket mode. She tries to make Sophie see sense, she tries to remind her of family responsibilities. She knows it is no-go, but she persists in face of Sophie’s obdurate insistence in crashing and burning. Sophie, in turn, wants none of Phoebe’s mealy-mouthed advice. She has found her raison d’etre and as far as she is concerned, it is all out of her hands anyway. She bears no responsibility for the aftershocks that will result from her emotional quake. This is not a simple romance. This is an act of God, it is predestined, it is unavoidable.After all, she and her lover are not flaunting convention. If she “…. hasn’t been the perfect wife she has at least been discreet and put on a public face that would do credit to any church-going woman.”
Eanes’s skill in making Phoebe and Sophie into real people is admirable. She tells their story loving and gracefully. She mixes heartbreaking lyricism with clear-eyed analysis of the social conditions that shape her characters and she shows the reader inner and outer landscapes of surpassing sadness and enormous beauty. These are perhaps her greatest strengths as a novelist—extraordinarily musical language, amazing descriptive power, and the ability to create landscape and characters that refuse to fit a single category. Yes, her Alabama is harsh, it is behind the times, it is often unpretty. It is also strong, resilient, nurturing and unforgettably lovely. Her Phoebe and Sophie are Protean and therein lies the universality that carries them beyond the American South to make them citizens of the world. Last but also important, is the treasure of Southern expressions which Eanes bestows upon the reader, Here is a small sample, “(She) cut her eyes toward the river…” An elderly relative has “one foot on the grave and another on a banana peel…” Too much effort for an unworthy cause is “too much sugar for a cent…”Richtexts welcomes Eanes to the ranks of Eudora Welty, Carson Mccullers, and Dorothy Parker.
LUCKY SOUTHERN WOMEN is a Propertius Press book.https://propertiuspress.wordpress.com/about/