I particularly like stories that uplift the spirit, and these two tales of women who turn out to be BFFs (Best Friends Forever) do just that.
"The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat" by Edward Kelsey Moore is about a trio of women friends in Plainview, Ind.
Odette, Clarice and Barbara Jean have been girlfriends for 40 years, ever since they met in high school in 1967. Back then, when the three became inseparable, they were called the Supremes, and they "held court" at their own table in Earl's diner. (Earl's was the first black-owned business in downtown Plainview, and race plays its own role in some of the intersecting story lines here.) They still meet at Earl's every Sunday after church, along with their husbands.
Through current narrative as well as flashbacks, we learn how they met and how they supported each other through their marriages, joys and sorrows.
We learn more about each person from the thoughts of the others as the picture of them becomes more detailed. One could have been a concert pianist. One turns to alcohol for comfort. And one talks to the dead. In fact, the dead show up fairly regularly, but they're presented as ordinary characters -- usually humorous -- and not at all scary.
Much of the book is hilarious. I found myself laughing out loud -- particularly at Odette's mother: "My mother had been a dedicated marijuana smoker all of her adult life. She said it was for her glaucoma. And if you reminded her that she'd never had glaucoma, she would bend your ear about the virtues of her preventative vision care regimen."
Her mother also couldn't cook: "The dog took one bit of Mama's ham and howled for six hours straight. The poor animal never quite recovered. ... We ended up with the only vegetarian dog in southern Indiana."
But there's more humor to be enjoyed: "Erma Mae had the largest head Clarice had ever seen on a woman. When she was in high school, the huge, round head, coupled with her tall, bony body and flat chest, earned her the nickname Lollipop. ... Unfortunately, she was also the mirror image of her big-headed mother at that age. If you squinted as she walked toward you, you'd swear a brown party balloon was floating your way."
Clarice's husband is a hound dog, and she has spent many nights "lying in bed beside him after he finally got home, pretending to sleep and wondering whether she possessed sufficient upper body strength to smother him with his pillow."
I don't classify this as chick lit; it isn't even just for women. It's a well-written, mainstream story about friendship: "These were the tender considerations that came with being a member of the Supremes. We overlooked each other's flaws and treated each other well, even when we didn't deserve it."
Odette is feisty and outspoken. You will wish she were real, so you could meet her at Earl's for lunch. The characters fall in love, people die, and there's a side-splitting wedding scene. And you may find yourself with tears in your eyes, but by the time it ends, you'll wish it could go on forever, and you're going to feel really good. I love this book.
"While We Were Watching Downton Abbey" by Wendy Wax may be classified as "chick lit," but it's more than that. It's a warm story that intertwines several plots with characters from different socioeconomic classes, just as the British drama "Downton Abbey" does. It isn't high drama, as "DA" is, but it's heart-warming and pleasant to read.
The book is set at the Alexander, a high-rise apartment building in Atlanta, Ga. On the top floor lives Samantha, with her husband of 25 years. The two are wealthy ("She'd married into Atlanta royalty") and seem perfectly happy together. Into the building move "empty nester" Claire (a writer working on her third novel) and "chubby" Brooke and her two daughters, fresh from a messy breakup with Brooke's shallow husband. (She had supported him through medical school, and now he's decided she isn't good enough for him.)
The building's British concierge, Edward, knows the residents' secrets and is helpful and discreet. It's Edward's idea to get the residents together for a sort of video club, with everyone who's interested gathering once a week to watch "Downton Abbey" together. It is at these screenings that the women gradually get to know one another.
Samantha can't figure out what her husband wants from her. Claire is trying to channel her inner Nora Roberts (the best-selling author), but is experiencing writer's block. Brooke is suffering from low self-esteem following her husband's departure, and it doesn't help that he's now dating a perfect "Barbie" doll.
Although they don't realize it, each of the women is kind of lonely. As they become close, they become stronger and happier.
The book has some funny moments, as when Brooke is trying to avoid running into her ex-husband: "Brooke froze. She would have paid large sums of money for an invisibility cloak. Even more for the ability to time travel; a solid fifteen minutes from now would work."
The four main characters are well drawn, but most of the others are cardboard cutouts meant to just move the story along.
As for the "Downton Abbey" references, you would not need to have watched the show to understand what's going on. But it couldn't hurt. And if you haven't watched the extraordinary "DA" but plan to (and why wouldn't you?), be advised that there are spoilers here.
As for the writing, it's smooth and easy-going -- a few adult situations, but nothing offensive or explicit -- very nice and relaxing. As the women watch the videos, "They leaned forward as one, eager to suspend disbelief, more than ready to lose themselves in the English countryside, within the walls of a grand estate, in the midst of a family that had come to feel almost as familiar as their own."
Copyright © 2013 Mary Louise Ruehr.