Beverly Lowry does many things well in this, her third novel, but what she does best of all is describe ordinary, daily, middle-class American family life. Don't sniff; it's a rare accomplishment these days. Most of our ostensibly serious writers are after larger game; only a handful -- John Updike, John Irving, Robb Forman Dew, a few others -- seem to understand how many riches are to be found in the mundane interaction of parents and children. Beverly Lowry, on the evidence of "Daddy's Girl," is one of these.
The woman of the title is Sue Shannon Stovall Muffaletta. She is in her late thirties, widowed, the mother of three adolescents, living in a Houston neighborhood called Post Oak Place. Her father, Jim (Big Daddy) Stovall, who is separated from her mother, lives nearby in an adults-only apartment complex and frequently stays over at the house to help out with the kids.
Sue is a bundle of conflicting identities. She is the suburban mother who serves as "Team Father" for her sons' Little League outfit. She is also the composer of moderately successful country-and-western tunes. And beyond that, she is the occasional singer of these songs, sneaking out at night to perform them in nightclubs and roadhouses. As she says:
"It's me singing. My feet in her shoes, my songs she's wailing: June Day is M.S. Sue is me. Names is all. Labels stuck on. We're the same. At night, some nights, not many, Sue Shannon Stovall Muffaletta turns into June Day singing the songs of M.S. Sue at Kikker Kuntry or Texas Jam, outside the Loop at any rate, in the redneck suburbs near the refineries where nobody calls me by my Post Oak name."
She's a woman in conflict, her suburban personality warring with her alley-catting one; among the songs she has written is one that quotes a woman as saying, "I'd rather be locked up in jail than at the PTA." But two elements in her life are constant, though from time to time they cause her difficulty: "Big" Stovall and her children.
Big Stovall is a marvelous character, the glue that holds the novel together. He's been huge all his life, but his size is deceptive; he is fast and agile enough to have played for the Green Bay Packers back in 1942, when they were a rough-and-ready outfit. Now he peddles frozen yogurt, charming his way into the affections of shop owners, and tends to his grandchildren.
Those kids -- Caroline, Robby and Ricky -- have a sharper identity in the novel as a group than as individuals, but that is no problem. Anyone who has kids will recognize right away that Beverly Lowry knows whereof she writes:
"The kids are in the living room watching TV. They ate earlier, on trays, Hamburger Helper Mexican Style, which they love, second only to boxed macaroni and cheese you make with a powdered orange stuff mixed with milk to make fake cheese, third only to taco-flavored anything, fourth only to cheap pizza and Pop-Tarts and Little Debbie Oatmeal Cakes. Brand names are their Bible. The same as knowing to listen to AC/DC and not Wayne Newton.
Lowry knows the way kids talk as well as she does the brand names they devour. Here, in a passage that could have been tape-recorded in any of millions of American households, Robby gripes to his mother about damage done to his belongings by a band of his younger brother's friends:
"Let's see. Number one, Shawn cratered my X-15 and left the top off the glue. Number two, he said he'd pay me back but he won't. Number three, Kevin got into my baseball cards and number four, stole George Brett. Only my favorite player. That's all."
And that is right; Lowry has captured with remarkable fidelity the way kids really do talk. To hear children talking in a contemporary novel with such authentic and believable voices is a rare and pleasurable experience.
The most effective sections of "Daddy's Girl" -- and they are very effective indeed -- are those in which the family is gathered together, joking and arguing and chattering and carrying on just the way regular families do. When Lowry moves the story beyond the immediate family she is less effective, though still very good. This takes place when Sue's aunt dies, and she and Big return to the homeplace in Arkansas for the funeral. There they discover that the aunt had completely redone the house, turning a ramshackle, comfortable old building into a fake-brick, all-modern-appliances monstrosity.
The funeral and the attendant family controversy send Big around the bend into a peculiar world of his own; he doesn't seem to have gone crazy, but he sees things as no one else does. He appears to have suffered an extreme reaction to the calculated destruction of his past as symbolized by the old house; and this is to be read as a metaphor for the destruction of an old, genuine South by a new, artificial one.
Okay. The point is well taken, as it has been in countless other novels and works of nonfiction about the postwar South. But that sort of thematic trumpeting is not where Beverly Lowry's real skills lie. Domestic scenes are her specialty, and the ties that bind families together. She brings her characters to life, she makes their settings vivid, and she seduces the reader into caring about them. All of that is quite enough to make "Daddy's Girl" an attractive and appealing novel.