To paraphrase, you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family. Which is pretty much what lead character Peach Rondell finds in The Book of Peach, a cozy, thoughtful, and generally fun novel by local author Penelope Stokes.
Former beauty pageant queen Peach Rondell was born Priscilla, but no one — except for her overbearing mother — calls her by her given name. At the opening of the book, it’s been 23 years since Peach “sauntered out of her mama’s antebellum home, shook the Mississippi dust off her pretty pumps and vowed never to return.” But, following the dissolution of her marriage, she find she has no where to go and mama’s house seems like the only option while Peach gets her feet back on the ground.
Of course as soon as Peach — now a 45 year-old woman — sets foot in Belladonna, her mama’s house, she reverts to her young self complete with he nee to simultaneously rebel against and please her mother. And mama is not an easy woman, indeed, she never has been.
“My upbringing wouldn’t permit me to contradict my mother and grandmother to their faces,” Peach writes in her journal at one point. “And my conscience wouldn’t let me make poor old Letitia Sutterfield the butt of a cruel joke. I sat there like a stone, my jaws frozen in a Southern Lady smile. It was, in my mother’s favorite expression, a ‘learning experience.’”
Mama always told Peach that Southern Ladies weren’t raised, they were brought up. Peach’s formative years (we learn through journal entries which make up a significant part of the novel) were also filled with lessons about the right people with whom to associate, how to win a man and how to be charming in even the trickiest situations. But, finding herself at loose ends, without a partner or home or profession to anchor her, Peach begins to unlearn those lessons as she embarks upon a journey of self discovery.
It’s actually her psychiatrist (“the old fool”) in Asheville who suggests Peach use her time in Mississippi to think back about her past and try to process the steps that led her to her current predicament. As she spends her days journaling and trying to avoid her mother, Peach finds a haven in the Heartbreak Cafe, a homecookin’ diner frequented by the sorts of people mama would no doubt shun.
But it’s among that oddball cast of characters — a gay friend from high school, an African-American cafe hand with a secret, cafe owner Dell (about whom Stokes wrote in last year’s Heartbreak Cafe), batty-but-lovable senior Purdy and her beau — that Peach begins to feel the love and support her mother was never able to show her.
The book ends well; I won’t say any more than that. The Book of Peach is a success with few missteps. At times the journaling segments feel a bit contrived, but they serve as means for conveying Peach’s background. Certain characters and situations come off as a little cliche: Two high school adversaries who wind up as a gay couple, a cheating husband who decides to return to his wife. But these are minor glitches and likely won’t bother every reader. Overall, Stokes crafts warm and welcoming prose and braves the issues of acceptance and estrangement that plague so many families.
Stokes reads from The Book of Peach on Sunday, Aug. 8, 3 p.m. at Malaprop’s. Free.