Southern belle resists the advances of a modern world

By Pat MacEnulty
Special Correspondent
Posted October 3 2004

The Garden Angel. Mindy Friddle. St. Martin’s Press. $23.95. 290 pp.

The Southern novel is still alive and kicking, thank heavens, and Mindy Friddle gives the genre its due in The Garden Angel. The story concerns two women who become unlikely friends and discover that by pooling their disparate talents, they may ultimately prevail.

Like most Southern writers, Friddle doesn’t worry much about plot. Instead she immerses her readers in the hopes and fears of her characters and then lets life do its messy business. A small Southern town, of course, is the quintessential setting.

The main character is Cutter Johanson, a young woman whose great-grandfather established the Sans Souci town mill in the 1800s and founded most of the businesses of the town, a satellite to a larger city. Friddle describes the modern-day Sans Souci as "a city-swallowed town. The shopping malls and 7-Elevens, billboards and neon signs, reached for us. The city of Palmetto lapped at the shore of our home."

This encroachment of modern life leads to Cutter’s greatest fear: the impending sale of her ancestral home, "coquettish and tattered" with an overgrown family cemetery in the back yard and a basement full of her deceased grandmother’s canned fruits and vegetables.

Fittingly, Cutter herself possesses a host of peculiarities. She wears her dead mother’s once fashionable clothes, unwittingly fitting in with the "retro" crowd. She’s got smarts, but she foregoes college in order to work two jobs–one of them as a waitress at the Pancake Palace and the other, writing obituaries for the Sans Souci newspaper–all so she can save her house.

Unfortunately for Cutter, her sister and brother don’t give a hoot about their heritage and want to sell the old estate as soon as possible. While they collude with an avaricious real estate agent, Cutter tries to discourage potential buyers by making the house as unappealing as she possibly can, even resorting to bringing in barnyard animals at one point.

In spite of her efforts, Cutter’s situation looks hopeless; the brash New South has an insatiable appetite for prime locations and not much interest in history. What makes matters worse is that Cutter’s sister, Ginnie, has gotten pregnant as a result of an affair with a married man. Cutter resolves to save the family house and help her sister raise the child, but Ginnie’s plan is to get as far away from Sans Souci and its ghosts as possible.

Enter Elizabeth Byers, an agoraphobic Dickinson scholar with a serious case of dissertation-block. Elizabeth chances upon Cutter one day when she forces herself to find the house where her husband’s lover lives.

Open-hearted Cutter befriends Elizabeth and gently coaxes her into a different world–a world peopled by a tough-talking waitress, a kindly priest, a few gentle simpletons and other regular folk who don’t care diddly-squat about Emily Dickinson or her poetry.

Friddle tells this tale with comic grace. As a result, The Garden Angel is soulful and satisfying, as Southern as a slice of watermelon on a hot summer day.

Pat MacEnulty, the author of the novel Sweet Fire and the short story collection The Language of Sharks, teaches writing at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.

Copyright 2004, Sun-Sentinel Co. & South Florida Interactive, Inc.

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