Bailey White's intimate vignettes of small-town life are loosely held together by their subjects, who are themselves tightly held together by love, family, and idiosyncrasy. This episodic mode, which has made her a favorite on National Public Radio, suits her just as well as a novelist. In Quite a Year for Plums, even the temporary denizens of her fictional southern Georgia town have their oddities: a bird artist is obsessed by a vanishing breed of chickens and has nightmares about chicken feet, while another dreams night and day of typography. He compares, for instance, the Mistral font to George Hamilton and laments the bastardization of Bodoni. It is perhaps the Gill Sans typeface that most raises his aesthetic hackles: "They shorten the uppers, they enlarge the counters, they round off the angles, they make it soft and slack. They castrate it!" (Suffice it to say that his partner in lamentation is a woman who fervently believes in little spacemen of the nonhuman variety.)
In addition to the extraterrestrialite, the permanent townsfolk include a pair of retired schoolteachers who have been reading aloud to each other for 50 years each Thursday in May. Why Thursday? Why only May? White doesn't let us in on that secret: she's reluctant to intrude too much on her characters' habits and hobby horses, even though they are happy enough to intrude on one another. What concerns these eccentrics above all is plant pathologist and banjo picker Roger Meadows, whom men and women alike admire. "Perhaps because of his years of walking in densely planted fields of tobacco and peanuts," White describes him at one social event, "Roger had a graceful way of moving through a crowd, gently slipping between the people as if they were sticky, floppy leaves that he must not bruise." A photo of him comparing sick and healthy peanut plants is the closest thing the place has to a pin-up. Even his ex-wife's aunt has one on her refrigerator: "On the white of Roger's shirt Eula printed R-O-G-E-R in proud capital letters, with the final R dipping down out of consideration for the roots of the healthy peanut plant."
Above all, his peers would like Roger to settle down with the right woman, in the wake of his failed marriage to the town's belle dame sans merci. Alas, when he falls under the spell of an inappropriate candidate--the aforementioned bird artist--they seem to know it won't last. But White describes this unusual romance with such sweetness and generosity that the reader hopes differently. Quite a Year for Plums is filled with strange social convergences, quiet comedy, and understated tragedy. The author has an eye--and, of course, ear--for the telling detail and the decisive, domestic moment.
From Library Journal
The women in town are worried about Roger, the peanut virologist. Hilma and Meade discuss him at their weekly readings. Eula frets over his welfare?not to mention his appetite. And everyone else just seems to be content with giving opinions on his budding romance with the strange bird artist, Della. National Public Radio commentator and best-selling short story writer White (Sleeping at the Starlite Motel, Thorndike, 1996) will make the reader care about this nurturing gaggle of women and other community members in a small, sleepy town in southern Georgia. There's the obsessed typographer who feels personally called to save vanishing typefaces. Helping him is Louise, who thinks letters and string will entice creatures from outer space. In the meantime, Louise's daughter Ethel, who left peanut virologist Roger, involves herself in brief relationships with an eccentric electric fan collector and a boat builder. This is not just for those readers interested in small-town tales but for anyone wishing to enjoy a charming story of human relations. One hopes that White has more novels to come.
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-?Shannon Haddock, Bellsouth Corporate Lib. & Business Research Ctr., Birmingham
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