by Jason Chen
Fans of local author, essayist and former Citizen Times columnist, Susan Reinhardt likely know her as a humorist. As with many of her characters, the writer seeks to challenge and poke fun at Southern culture — especially as it relates to femininity.
But in her latest novel, The Beautiful Misfits, which came out March 7, the Burnsville-based writer tackles a heavier topic: substance use disorder.
The book, a story about a Southern woman trying to help her son who is struggling with addiction, is largely inspired by Reinhardt’s own experience. Her son, the author notes, has had his own difficulties with alcohol.
“He has been recovered for four years,” she says. “But I’ve seen a lot of his friends and acquaintances die from opioids laced with fentanyl, and it’s killing more people today than it ever has.”
Reinhardt, however, promises that the novel is not an utter, 180-degree turn from her usual approach to storytelling. “The book is serious. It’s about the opioid epidemic, but it’s not tragic,” she says. “It’s hopeful.”
Indeed, Reinhardt fills her novel with an exuberant cast of colorful characters, from cheeky women in the makeup industry to a New Age guru who will feel familiar to most Ashevilleans.
Journey to save her son
Although the bulk of the narrative is set in Asheville, the story begins in Atlanta, where the novel’s protagonist, Josie Nickels, works as a news anchor, earning the status of local celebrity. However, her TV career comes to an abrupt end when she breaks poise and reveals too much about her private life on air. Humiliated, Josie packs her bags and moves to Asheville, where a makeup booth at a department store hires has-been celebrities as part of a publicity stunt.
In Asheville, Josie finds some satisfaction in her new, peaceful, albeit less glamorous life. She befriends her neighbor Ruby Necessary, a woman with yoga and prayer constantly on her mind. But things take a dramatic turn when Josie’s son starts texting her to demand money to support his opioid use. From that point forward, Josie is on a journey to save her son.
Through this specific storyline, Reinhardt, in part, celebrates Asheville’s long history as a transformative and salubrious city. “The mountains are a great healer,” she says. “People came here [in the late 19th and early 20th centuries] to heal when they had tuberculosis.”
What that history looks like in a modern-day, fictionalized Asheville is Vintage Crazy Resort & Clinic, a local, experimental rehabilitation facility. Located on a sprawling farm in Burnsville and lined with vintage campers, the setting seems to promise more of an aesthetic, millennial vacation than any serious attempt at treatment. While Josie initially scoffs at the rehab’s newfangled ways, she eventually recognizes the legitimacy of its healing power.
Reinhardt considers her fictional rehab one of the book’s major achievements.
“I did a lot of research into rehab centers and found what was working and what wasn’t. So, I created this utopic rehab center in the book, and that’s what I’m most excited about. The rehab center that I designed is not just 12 steps. It’s not a one-size-fits-all. It offers various forms of treatment so that the person suffering from any addiction can choose what treatment option they want. It’s also a working resort. So, patients don’t have to spend money. If they don’t have insurance, they can still go by working on the resort.”
A touch of beauty
Yet, in her heart, Reinhardt remains a humorist, as is evident in the novel’s secondary plot about Josie’s journey as a makeup artist. Inspired by Reinhardt’s own experiences working a similar job, her protagonist discovers the department store world is rife with flamboyant personalities and a certain zany charm.
Josie’s co-workers include Pauline, “the co-worker from hell”; Fabiana, her gorgeous, Brazilian superior; and Philly, an ex-supermodel. The book’s title is a direct reference to this particular group, which Reinhardt describes “as [being as] colorful as any [character] Flannery O’Connor created.” Sassy and competitive, this ensemble of beautiful misfits offers a balance to the book’s otherwise heavy topic.
“You talk about some craziness,” says Reinhardt, recalling her own former life as a department store salesperson. “Oh, Lord. That’s a whole different story. It was fun. It was a fun job.”