Renata DeChavannes is going through a rough patch. Just a few months after her adored mother and stepfather die in a plane crash, she has writer’s block (not good for a screenwriter), her emotionally distant father is getting remarried, and her director boyfriend is linked in the tabloids to a sexy young actress. What’s a girl to do but return to Alabama to discover the dark secrets of her family? At least, that’s what the girl does in Michael Lee West’s latest exploration of eccentric Southern women, Mermaids in the Basement (HarperCollins, 304 pp., $23.95).
Her trip does not start auspiciously. As Renata says, “If I had not read the cover story in the National Enquirer, it’s doubtful I would have gone to Alabama and ruined my daddy’s engagement party, much less sent the bride-to-be into a coma.” But Renata’s greatest challenge is to discover the truth about her mother and restore her relationship with her father. (If the name DeChavannes seems familiar, it’s because Renata’s father was the second husband of Bitsy Wentworth, the protagonist of West’s best-selling Mad Girls in Love.)
Luckily, she has the help of three elderly women: her grandmother, Honora DeChavannes; her former nanny, Gladys Boudreax; and former actress and family friend, Isabella D’Agostina McGeehee. Each tells Renata about different aspects of her mother’s past, a past that includes affairs and lost second chances. As Renata replaces the perfect picture of her mother with the flesh-and-blood woman, she becomes more willing to face the problems in her own life.
West, who lives on a farm in Lebanon, Tenn., is at her strongest when dealing with Southern women; her male characters are not quite as compelling. Still, she excels with a theme that she has made her own: the ways that mothers and daughters relate. Or fail to.
West appears 6 p.m. Jan. 10 at the Murfreesboro Books-a-Million. —Faye Jones
So disappointed that this doesn't feature xenomorph.
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