The Romance Readers’ Book Club (Plume, 2007) by Julie L. Cannon is a book for book lovers (and no, it’s not actually a romance novel, as such). The author gave a reading at Malaprop’s last month, but for anyone looking for a great page-turner to escape the dreary days of late winter, there’s no time like the present for this book.
Cannon, who lives in Watkinsville, Ga., is a Southern writer to be reckoned with. As regionalism fades, accents blur, and strip-mall and big-box culture (not to mention TV, pop music and movies) casting a unifying pall, finding a distinct Southern voice — neither affected by tiaras, bouffants and over-zealous drawls nor musty with nostalgia and antebellum platitudes — is tricky. But, seemingly without breaking a sweat, Cannon crafts characters that rise from the page fully formed and informed by Southern landscapes, sensibilities and histories.
“Tammi had a fleeting notion that Granny was crazy, talking gibberish,” the author writes early in Romance. “Then she realized the old woman was mixing the Bible with metaphor in her strange fashion.” This is the world inhabited by Tammi Lynn Elco, an orphan left to be raised by her strict Baptist step-grandmother; her best friend a developmentally disabled uncle. But for Tammi, coming of age in the small town of Rigby, Ga., church meetings, chores and a high school where she doesn’t quite fit in hardly provides a satisfying passage to adulthood.
“No longer a child, and not yet a woman at fifteen, when Tammi feels the shirring of her budding hormones, she tries to be content biking along the dirt road from the big house to Aunt Minna’s, or dangling her feet in the trickle of water that is left in Viking Creek,” we’re told at the opening of the book. It’s 1974, though Romance possesses a sense of timelessness. Moments are breathless and stilted, much the way teenage years linger in the memory.
But Cannon’s book — romance-themed as it is — doesn’t romance the past. Tammi wants to do the right thing, which — according to her grandmother — is to remain covered, focus on chores and schoolwork, and never turn her mind to baser endeavors. But Tammi knows that she has to explore her burgeoning sexual urges as surely as she knows she needs to get out of the small town where she’s always lived and learn what the larger world has to offer.
It’s while trick-or-treating with her uncle Orr, that Tammi discovers romance novels. A woman who doesn’t attend the family’s church gives Tammi a stash of the trashy books, which she hides, knowing her grandmother wouldn’t approve. These books lead to the secret book club hosted by Minna who is only too happy to dish gossip and tawdry advice. “”…‘Personally, I think a woman ought to show enough, but not too much,” she says at one juncture. “Leave the man wanting more … something to dream on.’”
The book club — the novel’s namesake — is the platform where Tammi can begin her journey into adulthood. Okay, that sounds kind of … romance book-y, doesn’t it? But this is a book worth savoring and I don’t want to give too much away.