The women of Red Mountain Realty are a close-knit group, weathering the challenges of late midlife, not to mention a sagging real estate market. Maggie Fortenberry was a beauty queen in her youth. Lately, she’s been wondering whether being crowned Miss Alabama was the high point of her life. Never married, she’s feeling lonely and questioning what good posture, dancing, and knowing all the ways to fold a napkin really got her.
Brenda is miserably struggling with her weight (and breaking her diet by sneaking ice cream), and plotting to run for mayor of Birmingham. Ethel, the office manager who watches the news so she’ll know what to complain about, wears purple head to toe, even dyeing her hair to match. Babs Bingington is a conniving rival real estate agent, plotting to put the ladies of Red Mountain out of business.
In this ensemble cast, only Babs, who seems like some kind of demented evil Barbie doll, feels like a cipher. Hazel Whisenknott, the woman who founded the agency, could almost be a caricature. At 3 foot 4, she was a woman of boundless energy, drive and heart. She had enough faith in Maggie, Brenda, and Ethel to bring them together to start the agency, and each woman still values Hazel as a source of quiet support and strength.
Hazel’s parts of the story are told in flashbacks and in fond memories, as Maggie, Brenda and Ethel continue to mourn her death five years later. Even though some of Hazel’s acts of kindness verge on the improbably miraculous (a chocolate Easter egg stuffed with much-needed money, for instance), most of her feats relied on sheer persistence and force of personality. After Babs floods one of Maggie’s show houses to sabotage it, for instance, Hazel works the phones, calling in favors to erase the damage in record time.
The city of Birmingham emerges as a character in its own right. The cadences of Flagg’s descriptions and the rhythms of her characters’ banter immerse the novel in a sense of the South.
As the story moves through each of the characters’ perspectives, the women of Red Mountain emerge, fleshed out with nuance, humor, and grace. Yes, they each have some private struggle, and sad moments of doubt and introspection. But even in these darker moments, there are odd and eccentric touches of whimsy: Ethel’s purple hair and caustic jibes at Babs, Brenda stuffing a forbidden pint of ice cream in her purse, where it melts over everything. As you read, you’ll find yourself smiling unexpectedly, or laughing right in the middle of a wistful sigh.
Call it quintessential Southern writing if you like, this balance between pathos and humor. Tempering life’s sorrows with a cast of funny, eccentric characters is something Fannie Flagg does exceptionally well. In fact, I Still Dream About You (Random House, $26) has a lot in common with Flagg’s most famous novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. Both of them set characters against life’s ordinary sorrows, armed with exuberance and eccentricities that will make readers laugh out loud. Both novels, so atmospherically Southern, have a timeless quality. Even though I Still Dream About You deals so much with the 21st-century real estate market, the characters of the women read as deeply ladylike, with a timeless grace. To be sure, some of the odd touches of plot and character ask for a fairly hefty suspension of disbelief. But the characters are so likable and honestly blended that you’ll find yourself forgiving even the more outlandishly magical plot twists.