Book World: Review of 'The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder' by Rebecca Wells

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By Carolyn See
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 24, 2009


By Rebecca Wells

Harper. 395 pp. $25.99

Calla Lily Ponder is born in the little Louisiana town of La Luna, or The Moon, which borders on a meandering river of the same name. This is fitting because the town's inhabitants -- particularly Calla's mother -- are under the direct protection of the Moon Lady, a beneficent goddess who wishes nothing more for all of us than that we engage in the construction of our own souls and dance, every chance we get, under the light of the moon. And many readers will recognize that all these characters, including the Moon Lady, are creations of a literary goddess in her own right, Rebecca Wells, who gave us the beloved ladies of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and cheered up an entire generation of grateful female fans.

Calla's mother, who dotes on her children, runs a beauty salon on the porch of her house: the Crowning Glory. Calla's parents also collaborate in running a dance studio, the Swing 'N Sway. Once a month, the entire town and folks from miles around come to spend the whole day dancing. La Luna is small, fewer than 2,000 people, but it supports these enterprises, as well as a general store and skating rink run by an eccentric (perhaps lesbian) woman who participated in a small piece of our national history. Back in the civil rights days, when Calla Lily was just a kid, she watched as this courageous store owner ran off an awful sheriff who had beaten an African American child.

Here is the plot: Calla Lily enjoys an enchanted childhood until her mid-teens, when her beloved mother dies of cancer. Right around the time her mother takes sick, Calla falls mightily in love with a darling neighbor boy named Tuck, who is being raised by his kindly grandparents. (Tuck's dad, a homicidal drunk, is a major villain in the story.) Calla and Tuck plan to stay together forever, but to Calla's dazed surprise, Tuck goes off to Stanford after he graduates from high school. She's devastated, but she has already decided to follow in her mother's footsteps as a beautician. She embarks on her own great adventure -- heading out to the big city of New Orleans, where she becomes infatuated with Ricky, a gay hairdresser, attempting to entice him with homemade tuna casserole and voodoo powder. After this misunderstanding is cleared up, she, Ricky and his partner become fast friends. Calla then falls in love with Ricky's cousin, Sweet, who holds down a dangerous job ferrying workers and provisions to oil rigs out in the Gulf of Mexico.

No one could make the argument that this novel isn't sappy. It's shamelessly sappy and eerily realistic; like listening to the airy ruminations of a sweet little girl who grows up to be a beautician. If Calla were talking to you on the phone, you might want to get off after 45 minutes. Calla's life is all about what happened to her, what people ate and what they wore. Male readers might want to pull out those ten-foot poles they carry around not to touch things with; highly educated women might feel the urge to turn up their noses as well, and the spiritually sophisticated among us might wince at all the homespun wisdom about kindness and forgiveness.

But there's something down-to-earth and comforting about this novel. When Calla and her friend Sukey go to visit Ricky and Steve for brunch one morning, Calla devotes a page and a half to how the omelet is made and another half-page to how the table is set. When a funeral occurs, pages are devoted to what to wear, first to the viewing, then to the service. This may be an etiquette book, as well as a novel, a manual for correct living.

A good portion of Calla's adventures have been thriftily recycled from Wells's earlier, one-woman show called "Splittin' Hairs." Calla's theatrical predecessor is Loretta Endless, a "pink-collar philosopher" who progresses from a little girl to a clueless vamp who tries to seduce a gay guy, then to an anti-nuclear activist. (In the novel, Calla gets upset with atom bombs and writes a polite letter to President Jimmy Carter, asking him to cease and desist his nuclear shenanigans.) The bad-sheriff episode is also recycled from the play. But, who cares? Many more people will read this novel than ever sat through the one-woman show.

I think the audience for this good-hearted, wishful-thinking book is probably young mothers, staying home with their kids, beginning to feel the existential loneliness sink in and striving to make the best of the hands life has dealt. For them, being told to turn up the boombox and dance in the moonlight, trusting that life is basically good, may be sound advice indeed.

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