Bound South (Touchstone, 2009) is the debut novel of Atlanta-based author Susan Rebecca White. There’s the saying, “Write what you know.” Chances are, White did just that with her often wickedly funny work of fiction.
Narrated from the perspectives of three very different Southern women (proper, middle-aged housewife Louise; Louise’s rebellious teen daughter Caroline; and Missy, the ultra-Christian tween-aged daughter of Louise’s cleaning lady), South covers a decade and sees its characters through life-changes, geographical relocations and ideological shifts.
Set in urban Atlanta, beginning in 1998, South opens with Louise driving her mother-in-law Nanny Rose—the ultimate Southern dame—to the funeral of Nanny Rose’s longtime housekeeper, Sandy. From the get go, White lets her readers know what sort of ride they’re in for: “I drive up next to her, stop the car, lean over the passenger seat and push her door open from the inside. She stands stiffly beside it. I sigh, turn off the ignition, and get out. Oh Lord. Here we go.” And then, “After officially opening the car door for her, I hold Gunther, her blond Pomeranian, who is apparently going with us to the funeral, while she lowers herself sideways into the seat.”
That’s Nanny Rose, in a nutshell. But, actually, the matriarch plays only a small role in this novel. Instead it’s Louise who does the bulk of the narrating. She was born and raised in Atlanta, married to her college sweetheart and settled in the upper class if not overly posh Ansley neighborhood. At first Louise seems to be a stereotype of the sheltered Ladies Who Lunch set. But over the course of South, Louise begins to reveal her democratic leanings and her open-mindedness—sometimes despite her died in the wool Republican husband. When her daughter is expelled from a high profile private school she notes, “Honey, if scandal was going to bring our family down, don’t you think it would have happened when your uncle Wallace killed himself?”
Louise’s daughter Caroline is also a puzzle. At the book’s start she’s a high school senior, failing classes and obsessed with acting. She’s a wild child who has little interest in Atlanta society, marriage or pleasing her parents. But as the years pass, a new Caroline emerges: “It happened quickly, the weight. It was as if my body—which, since that talk with Mom, I had underfed—suddenly resisted and pushed itself out, claiming the space it always wanted. My hips grew and soon none of my jeans or pants fit.”
Missy, the third (and least heard) voice of South is less complex than the book’s other heroines. She cares about little besides her dead-beat dad and her relationship with Christ. Missy’s prosyletizing verges on annoying, though this is the point. And White does a convincing job of creating a character who attempts to sate her sense of loss and lack of place by being spiritually pure—an impossible and punishing task. “I know Jesus is always with me,” she says. “But it’s not the same as having someone on this earth to share Him with. Even if this world is just a sinful blink before eternity, it gets lonely.”
While each character and her subsequent story could work as a stand-alone, the way White manages to loosely weave the three very different voices together creates a well-rounded (if not complete) perspective on the Southern experience. That, and South is a lot of fun and goes down smooth as that sweet tea everyone in the book keeps guzzling.
Susan Rebecca White reads from and discusses Bound South at Malaprop’s on Friday, May 1. The 7 p.m. event is free. Info: 254-6734.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter