Tuesday, March 13, 2007

What I'm Reading: Lee Smith

Occasionally people ask me what I'm reading because they generously attribute me with good taste in literature. Thank you, people, and here's a recommendation. I just finished On Agate Hill by Lee Smith. This was the third novel I've read by Ms. Smith, and I highly recommend her as an author. Smith was an author that I discovered on my own, and it's always such a nice surprise to be blown away by a novel when you have no expectations from publisher's hype, word-of-mouth, Oprah, or bestseller lists. The last time that happened for me was when I stumbled across Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale.

This time my happy discovery was Fair and Tender Ladies (1989) by Lee Smith. I was looking for a novel set in the Appalachians because I was missing my grandmother. She was a spirited, sad, funny firecracker, born and raised in the Eastern tip of Tennessee, and her family's roots in that area are centuries old. I was delighted to recognize little pieces of my grandmother in the main character: a point of view or turn of phrase, her disappointments, rebellions, her restlessness, and her deep love for the beauty of the Appalachian mountains.

Ladies is a lifetime of letters from its heroine, Ivy Rowe, to her family and friends. (That makes it an epistolary novel, if you're into learning new words or checking my credentials.) The writing, all in Ivy's semi-educated voice, is so smooth you don't even notice your eyes are translating text; you hear this novel more than read it. The story is moving, surprising and fulfilling, and Ivy is a character you will not soon forget. The last, broken sentence of the novel echoed in my head for days. I've also read and enjoyed Oral History and now On Agate Hill, but for me Fair and Tender Ladies is her best. Give one a try.

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