Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove - Susan Gregg Gilmore

the  improper life of bezellia grove
susan gregg gilmore
c. 2010
256 pages
completed 5/9/2011

read for: i want more challenge

*may contain spoilers*

Apparently among those who consider their social standing some measure of importance, I am to be admired for I am one of the view Nashvillians who can claim with infallible certainty that a blood relative had lived in this town since its inception.

Bezellia Grove is the last in a long line of first born daughters named for their pioneering ancestor who picked up her dead husband's musket in order to fight off the attacking Chickamauga tribe (though the accuracy of the story is debatable). Growing up in an affluent and wealthy family, Bezellia's life should be breezy and idyllic. But as her mother descends into alcoholism, her father becomes more and more distant, and her younger sister enters her teens still making mud pies and clinging to her doll Baby Stella, Bezellia's life is anything but. She finds herself drawn to the family she creates from the African American help, Maizelle the family cook and Nathaniel the driver. Her life takes a turn when she develops a friendship with Nathaniel's son Samuel and Bezellia is introduced to 60s Tennessee racism first hand.

While I have to admit I enjoyed Gilmore's first novel Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen better, I still really enjoyed Bezellia. Southern lit like this can sometimes be dismissed as merely fluff, but she tackles some heavy topics like alcoholism and racism and inter-racial relationships in a very realistic and non sugar coated or fantastical way. I found the inclusion on some not-so-nice remarks from Bezellia's cousin, who was all for Bezellia's crush on Samuel, to be more telling of the blatant racism than any of Mrs. Grove's hysteric outburst. Mrs. Grove is portrayed throughout much of the book as a somewhat larger than life villain (before we come to see her as more complex) so it's kind of accepted that of course someone like that would be racist. But Bezellia's cousin is supposed to be a good character, someone on Bezellia and Samuel's side. For her to make those comments shows how deeply rooted the racism was.

I did find some fault (maybe that's the wrong word??) in the characterization of Maizelle and Nathaniel. In my opinion, I viewed them as a little too...perfect? Against the villainy of Mrs. Grove they were almost angelic in their long suffering and unconditional love for Bezellia and her sister. I thought they were a little too influenced by Mamie or Uncle Tom stereotypes (Maizelle a little more than Nathaniel) in their devotion to Bezellia. It wasn't super blatant or anything, just something that I picked up on. Samuel, on the other hand, was an entirely different matter, a well rounded character and equal to Bezellia.

As for the ending, I was somewhat torn. The hopeless romantic in me wished Samuel and Bezellia could have taken on the world, but the historian in me was more satisfied that they didn't.



nat @book, line, and sinker said...

i recently got into southern fic and 'the improper life' sounds like a perfect summer read. actually, the character names have me hooked... :) i don't love a lot of the history in the south but i do like the hospitality, cooking, and charm.

Veronica said...

Nat, I really enjoyed it, and you're right it's a great read for summer. Not too dark or complex but still rich and enjoyable.