I just finished my book group choice for February, "Big Stone Gap" by Adriana Trigiani.
I was delighted and enthralled by this book from the first page, when Ave Maria, the main character, describes her love of the local bookmobile and the town tramp,(with a heart of gold) Iva Lou, who runs it. The story follows Ave through memories of her childhood growing up as a 'ferriner' in the 50s, 60s and 70s among Virginia coal miners, because her mother emigrated to Virginia from Northern Italy. Ave is now the town pharmacist, and discovers after her mothers death that the cold and cruel man she called father for many years was just a man who married her mother out of pity because she arrived in America pregnant and alone as a teenager.
Ave has never married because she has never learned to trust, and yet she has two suitors, Theodore, a high school teacher and her best friend, and Jack Mac, a shy man who tries to court her by asking her to marry him outright. She refuses, assuming that he's making fun of her status as the town spinster. A whole come-here-get-away dance between Theodore, Jack Mac and Ave ensues, and its hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time.
Meanwhile, many town characters emerge, whole and robust, from the pages, including the town lawyers gossipy wife, the snobby cheerleader who gets pregnant by the quarterback of the football team, the crazy aunt, the chain-smoking, wise-cracking drugstore clerk and the impoverished but brilliant teenager who ends up owning the pharmacy. When Elizabeth Taylor comes to town to help her husbands political career, chaos ensues as the town prepares dramatic presentations and a special fried chicken dinner as a library fundraiser. Unfortunately, Taylor chokes on a chicken bone and ends up in the hospital. The other big plot surprise is Ave meeting all her relatives (who fly in from Italy thanks to Jack Mac and a bizarre travel agent from Jersey)and discovering that she knew her true love all long, she just needed to see things from her hearts perspective.
The prose in this novel reminded me of Fannie Flagg, Dorothea Benton Frank and Jan Karon, all warm Southern drawls and quirky characters in hilarious situations with dramatic gothic overtones. The plot was swift and sure and the characters marvelous and real. I honestly couldn't put Big Stone Gap down, and ended up reading it in 8 hours. Though I wanted to slap Ave Maria for being so indecisive, I came to understand her waffling and fear, so it wasn't so bad, especially when everything ended up so well, with a happily ever after that left me smiling. The author, who actually grew up in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, has an obvious affection for the town and Virginians in general, and it shows in this loving rendition of small town life.
A very satisfying read, I am calling this book the best book of the year so far. I recommend it to all those who enjoy sweet and funny novels with good characters and interesting premises. There is romance, an HEA and sexual discussions, but nothing overt, so I would also recommend it for older teenagers. I want to thank Ann the librarian for recommending this book for our book group, as it washed away the lingering oily residue of the horrible "Life of Pi" out of my head.