A Letter from Author Cathy Holton
Almost twenty years ago, I went with my good friend Randal to visit her great-aunt Fanny in the sleepy little town of Franklin, Tennessee. Or at least it was sleepy then, before the country stars of Nashville discovered it. Randal, it seemed, was from a very old, prominent Southern family and Great-Aunt Fanny’s home was a suitably impressive mansion standing on a street of equally impressive old homes a few blocks from the town square.
Fanny was a lovely woman, intelligent, lively, and much younger-looking than her seventy-some-years would indicate. There were photographs of her everywhere, dressed in riding clothes for a fox hunt, standing beside a camel in the Egyptian desert, drinking cocktails on the Riviera. Standing at her side in all the photos was her large, florid-faced husband who had died some years back. The sprawling house was filled with antique silver and furniture, oil paintings of long-dead ancestors, and priceless historical artifacts, including a framed letter from Thomas Jefferson written to one of Fanny’s ancestors.
As a lover of history, I was fascinated by the house and the family. I was also fascinated by Fanny’s circle of friends, an equally lively group of women who had been educated at Vanderbilt in the twenties and who still clung to the time-honored tradition of cocktail hour. These women spoke in a deep, cultured accent so often attempted, and yet so rarely achieved, by movie actors trying to portray the Old South. They were gracious and welcoming and within five minutes, by use of a few deft questions, knew everything there was to know about my background and the kind of “people” I came from.
I felt like I had stepped into a Faulkner novel. (One of Fanny’s cousins had known Faulkner in Paris. She had not been impressed.) This feeling increased when, the next day, Randal and I accompanied Fanny to the cemetery to put flowers on the graves of the dead. Noting Fanny’s reverent attention to a grave set apart from the others, I asked, “Who’s buried there?”
Randal hesitated. “Fanny’s husband.”
“The one in all the photos?”
“No. That was her second husband. The one buried over there is her first husband. Charlie.”
“What happened to him?”
“We don’t speak of him,” Randal said.
True to her Southern upbringing, I couldn’t get a word out of her. There were no photos of him in the house. It was as if he had never existed. That evening as I lay in a four- poster bed in a moonlit room waiting for Charlie’s ghost to appear, I remembered Fanny’s tender expression as she bent to tend the grave of a man dead for over sixty years. And I wondered what could have happened to him, what could have happened between him and Fanny, that would keep her family from ever mentioning his name.
Twenty years later, I wrote Summer in the South
. Was the love affair between Charlie and Fanny truly as I envisioned it? Did the things that happened to me there in that old house in Franklin really happen, or did I just dream them?
The answers to both questions, I suppose, lie clearly in the realm of fiction.
Holton's (Beach Trip) fourth novel is a carefully fitted nesting doll containing the secrets of one Southern family. Throughout Ava Drabrowski's growing up, her mother constantly kept her on the move, so the adult Ava enjoys her steady paycheck and a place to call home. But when her mother dies, Ava accepts an offer from Will, a college friend, to spend the summer in Tennessee with his elderly aunts, Josephine and Fanny Woodburn. It will be a chance to mourn, but also an opportunity to begin the novel Ava wants to write. The South feels like a different world to her, with its meticulous manners, taboo topics, and five o'clock "Toddy Time," and Ava's favorite taboo topic is the aristocratic Woodburns themselves-but nobody wants to talk about the past. No one, that is, except Jake, Will's estranged cousin, to whom Ava is immediately drawn. What she learns gives her the makings of a great novel, but she also learns that some secrets are better left buried. Ava's struggles with her own past make her a wonderfully grounded narrator for a snapshot of the South as it is today: a region deeply tangled in its own history. (June)
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