Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Book of Polly by Kathy Hepinstall

I'm always up for reading an author who decides to take a chance and write a novel that's quite different from their previous works. Kathy Hepinstall wrote two previous books that I loved:  Blue Asylum and Sisters of Shiloh. Both revolved around the Civil War and took place in the South.  The Book of Polly does have a distinctly Southern flavor, but it's contemporary and utterly wonderful.

Told through the voice of Polly's young daughter Willow, the story unfolds with an unusual twist:  Polly became pregnant with Willow at age 58, and found out she was pregnant just after the sudden death of the Captain, Polly's husband. Willow's mother is much older than her schoolmate's mothers, and Willow is obsessed with her mother dying. Her obsession leads her to spin wild tales about her mother, and Willow becomes a very colorful liar.  
Polly is a pretty unusual mother, and not just because of her age. She's a real pistol; witty, sassy, and not above borrowing a falcon to perch on her shoulder as she goes to visit the counselor at Willow's school to discuss Willow's out of control lies. Yes, Willow told the children her mother has hunted with a falcon. And Polly isn't going to make Willow look bad at school. As she says to the counselor about Willow's tall tales, "It's not my fault that the gray of everyone else's stories makes the color stand out." 

Willow's obsessed with her mother dying (Polly smokes Virginia Slims and drinks margaritas) and the life her mother lived before she was married and had Willow's older brother Shel and sister Lisa, both grown and on their own. Polly is from a small town in Louisiana, and refuses to talk about her life, the town, and the people she knew. Of course Willow's obsession never ends, and as she becomes a teenager and the Bear (cancer) strikes home, she becomes determined to know her mother's whole life.  

I loved Polly. A larger than life character, she is so darn funny I kept chuckling over some of her witty lines. Seventy-two years old and raising a teenager, she is at her wit's end:  

"Jesus isn't gonna help me with a teenager, Lisa. He was good with lepers and whores and blind people, but he can't cure the smart-ass years and you know it." 

At times a strong woman raising a child on her own, to a vulnerable woman struggling to weather life's ups and downs, Polly is an unforgettable character. Willow is just as complex and funny. I can understand her terror at her mother dying and leaving her alone so early in life. There comes a time in all our lives when we realize our parents will someday pass on, and thinking of life without their presence is terrifying. For Willow, this fear is part of her life very early on, and most of this novel is about her struggle to cope with her fears. The mystery of Polly's early life in Louisiana (the story is set in Texas) is always a part of the background, and her refusal to tell Willow any of it just drives Willow to do some detective work and figure it out on her own. Will Polly ever tell Willow her story--which, in turn, is part of Willow's family history? 

I am so glad I discovered the story of Willow and Polly Havens. I didn't want to finish their story and say goodbye. The rest of the cast of characters: Shel and Lisa, Willow's older brother and sister; Phoenix, a childhood friend of Shel who worships Polly; and battling next door neighbors who drive Polly nuts made me feel a part of the family.  

A big thank you to Viking/Penguin (Pamela Dorman Books) for a review copy of this novel.  I would have missed it otherwise, and that would have been a shame. 

Rating:  5/6 for endearing characters, a complicated yet loving mother-daughter relationship, and that Southern flair I love so much.  Fans of Fannie Flagg would enjoy this novel. Full of humor and heartfelt moments. 

Available in hardcover and e-book. 

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