“Quirky,” “wise,” “witty,” “warm-hearted” are all words that critics use when they come up against a certain kind of book, but “quirky” is the tip-off that the critic didn’t really get it.
We reviewers are usually crabby by nature, and writers are supposed to suffer and be temperamental, so when a book shows up wearing a big smile and bright clothes — well, there’s no real explaining it except by using the “Q” word.
Certainly, when it first came out in 1987, “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” filled that description. Fannie Flagg clearly loved her characters, and her description of how one couple got scared half to death when the missus had her first orgasm after many years of marriage will stay in the minds of Flagg’s readers forever.
“The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion” follows roughly the same formula. The author takes a few women, some more hapless than others, and showers them with surprises that turn out to be happiness bombs, leaving them richer and wiser in every way. Quirky.
Sookie, or Mrs. Earle Poole Jr., as she is more formally known in the historic little town of Point Clear, Ala., is beloved by all, except maybe herself. She’s a married woman of 59 who has just finished marrying off three of her four children and has successfully raised a menagerie of animals, including an alligator in the basement. She’s looking at what should be her peaceful golden years; she’s lucky, she knows that. Her husband, Earle, is a successful dentist who admires her beyond words. But her mother, terribly energetic at the age of 88, lives two houses down. Mother Lenore is critical, nosy, pushy, born with a gavel in her hand, chairman of every club in Point Clear and beyond. She’s also — still! — startlingly beautiful, with flowing scarves and scatter pins and a family inheritance that includes real pearls and a full set of silver. She is every inch a Southern lady and insists that Sookie be the same.
But this is not to be. A mysterious man on the phone tells her, “You are not who you think you are.” It turns out that Sookie isn’t a Southern belle at all, but the child of a Roman Catholic Polish unwed mother named Fritzi, with a unpronounceable last name. Poor Sookie freaks. Besides everything else, she’s a year older than she’s been led to believe: “There’s nothing more unattractive,” she thinks in despair, “than a sixty-year-old ex-cheerleader still trying to be perky.”
But what of this obscure Polish girl, Fritzi, a person so low on Sookie’s social scale that she hesitates for weeks before telling her children she’s adopted? The author takes us back to the early 20th century, when Fritzi’s father is a teenage immigrant in a small Wisconsin town of other hard-working Poles who farm and play the accordion and keep ferociously clean houses. Fritzi’s sisters are a darling bunch and courageous, so when a barnstorming pilot comes through town between the wars, it seems perfectly believable that they should all learn to fly. During World War II, they almost all join the WASPs — Women Airforce Service Pilots — to ferry military planes from their factory of origin to their point of departure for various fronts.
Fritzi never got to college. She’s full of rough edges and patriotic cliches. She loves that pilot who trained her but knows he’s not the marrying kind. We wait to see how and when she’s going to get pregnant, but she seems too smart for that.
Meanwhile, we’re treated to a history of the WASPs, the churlish rudeness of many a macho guy who envies feminine courage, and Fritzi’s heroism.
And at the other end of the country, Sookie, full of shyness and hesitation, seeks out her real mom and her destiny. It’s Flagg’s pleasure to hit her characters with several happy endings, but the real happiness is that she’s given us another lovable and — quirky — novel.
See regularly reviews books for The Washington Post.