Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts

I first read this book in my last year of high school and I strongly remember selecting a passage to read aloud to my writer’s craft class when our teacher prompted us to pick an example of good descriptive writing.
I loved Letts’ descriptive flounce and flourish. Even as a teenager who liked to write, I thought hers was a style to emulate. Her characterization, my favourite part of a novel, was also rather remarkable in its execution. I loved the way this mismatched community found a bit of a makeshift family and saw each other in themselves: a rag tag crew of heftily believable characters like something out of a witty John Irving novel.   I loved the love story: not just between Novalee and her eventual ( and highly engaging ) suitor; but with her new home, her new family, her new friends, her young daughter, her life as she picks up and starts anew and wields talent and grace she never knew she possessed. An undervalued woman finds great worth through a maze of others. An outcast finds solace in a community where each feels detached and through detachment and fervor melds a sort of innocent family with high regard and rippling trouble, with solace and strength and perseverance.

The story is very familiar ( largely because they turned it into a film ): 17 year old Novalee Nation is deserted at a Wal-Mart by her jackass boyfriend. She’s 7 months pregnant, she has nowhere to go.  She lives at the Wal-Mart and even has her baby there, innocently writing down in an account ledger all that she owes the large chain store: from stolen canned goods to medicine…. A hiding place of survival.

The residents of Sequoyah, Oklahoma are quick to welcome her and are colourfully coated with Dickensian aplomb: from the hearty Moses Whitecotton, who takes photographs of babies for laced and ribboned keepsake books and challenges Novalee to choose a name to mean something for her baby to Sister Husband: a delightfully batty Christian woman who attends AA meetings and fornicates with her gentleman caller Mr. Sprock ( don’t worry, she always asks for forgiveness after), to Lexie Coop: a rotund and delightful incarnation of the plight of women in the lower economic scale: feisty and colourful and attempting to raise a large brood on her own ( all children named after delicious candy)  to Forney Hull: the librarian who gave up a college education to nurse his alcoholic and now mentally diminished older sister.  Novalee learns about love and the meaning of home in a patchwork quilt of heart-warming circumstances and relationships forged between society’s obsolete and over-looked.

I started reading this book again because, well, it had been about a dozen years and because I was speaking to my friend about James Frain ( who plays Forney in the movie).  I  remembered what a lovely, lovely book character Forney is and how he is frustrated, baffled and then completely smitten with Novalee. His reverence for her as a diamond in the rough, his seeing her true kaleidoscope beauty when she has just been cast off, pregnant and alone, by her nomad boyfriend is the very heart of the novel.  It gives light to circumstance, it gives grace to bleak and gritty undermining of humanity, cruel acts, desertion and despair.

It’s my favourite kind of love story: one built entirely on a burgeoning friendship and one where the unrequited pulse beats supreme until resolution.  Forney PINES ( I used this word quite a bit when describing the character to my friend ) for Novalee and feels her worth all that is good and right and wonderful in the world.  While she doesn’t initially believe it and has trouble viewing her own worth or believing that she is good enough for the educated pseudo-librarian, we believe it from the moment we encounter her: all spirited and elastic and willing to make love out of hatred and something colourful and warm out of sandy nothingness.

There are so many incidents of despair and desertion and abuse.  There are so many tales of economic woes and substandard living.  There is so much that we look down on, perhaps unintentionally…. People we scorn and judge and spurn.  Not unlike Dickens, Billie Letts excavates these voices and paints them in vibrant, relatable colour.  It’s a story of love wrapped in the purest of humanity.

It’s all effervescence and joy and I loved my re-read.


Kailana said...

I have enjoyed all the books I have read by Billie Letts. I think I have an unread one on my shelves somewhere. I must revisit!

Rachel said...

this is a BEAUTIFUL book!