I Still Dream About You by Fannie Flagg
One of the popular instructions given to young English students is to beware of reading texts through the prism of knowledge of the writer’s biography: don’t seek out oblique references to homosexuality in Henry James’ novels, treat Hemingway’s hard-drinking characters as mere figments of the author’s imagination, and for heaven’s sake, try to find something original to say about The Bell Jar that doesn’t involve the suicide of Sylvia Plath.
With her delectable new novel I Still Dream About You, Fannie Flagg laughs in the face of such edicts; like her earlier books, most notably Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, which sat on the New York Times’ bestseller list for 36 weeks before being adapted into a hit movie, ISDAY is peopled with strong, irrepressible women who are modeled on those in Flagg’s family, and undoubtedly, given the author’s colourful background as an actress, TV writer and comedienne, Flagg herself.
Flagg lures her reader into this novel of deceptive depth by introducing one such woman, Maggie Fortenberry, a 60-year-old real estate agent who has decided, as she describes it, to “leave.”
Quite what she means isn’t immediately clear, but when the omniscient narrator says of Maggie that “doing something like this would never have been her first choice, [but] it had become painfully clear that she had no other option . . . All she could do was get out now while she still had the mental and physical faculties to do it”, it is apparent that Maggie is planning her own suicide – but in such a way that her friends and colleagues will think she has merely disappeared.
You see, Maggie is an accommodating sort, going to much trouble to tie off loose ends. She closes her bank accounts, pays all the bills, cancels the phone service, even empties the fridge to spare her housekeeper the task. But her inability to say no or decline a request for help leads to repeated postponements of her departure and drives the plot, drawing Maggie and her colleague Brenda into a mystery involving an grand mansion, an unidentified skeleton and a diabolical real-estate competitor.
Who the skeleton once was, and how it came to rest in a steamer trunk in a locked attic is revealed by Flagg in chapters interspersed with the present-day action; these serve as a subtle counterpoint to Maggie’s tentative progression toward the world of the willingly living.
The supporting characters are a delight, from the hilariously hedonistic Brenda to the pair’s boss, Hazel Whisenknott, who is no less vivid a figure for having died before the novel begins. And the city of Birmingham, Alabama, where Flagg was born and still lives, becomes much more than a simple setting, as Flagg’s characters directly confront its complicated past; one gazes out a window at the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four African-American girls were killed in a 1963 bombing, while another reminisces about her sister’s participation in the infamous incident in which fire hoses were turned on civil rights protestors.
Flagg’s delight in infusing her characters with joie de vivre has a contagious effect on her reader; it is as if she preps her heroine like a wind-up doll and sends her into a funhouse where the exit is known, but the journey is in equal parts unpredictable and enchanting.
Previously reviewed on Coast.co.nz
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones