Friday, September 24, 2010

The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove

The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove by Susan Gregg Gilmore
Published by Shaye Areheart Books
Crown Publishing
Hardcover $23


The cover of the ARC of Susan Gregg Gilmore's The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove is eye catching; the back of a young girl's head covered with a ring of daisies in the foreground, looking down a path bordered with colorful flowers at a southern style mansion (think Gone With the Wind's Tara) in the background. 

Born in 1951, Bezellia was named after her father's ancestor, a woman who fought off Indians who attacked their Nashville settlement. Young Bezellia wore her ancestor's moniker proudly, hoping to live up to the first Bezellia's name.

Bezellia's father was a wealthy and busy doctor, from a well respected Nashville family. Her mother was a woman from 'the wrong side of the tracks' who desperately desired to fit into Nashville society. She was an unhappy woman, of whom Bezellia said "Mother with a cup of coffee in her hand was not a particularly kind or attentive person and (that) Mother with a gin and tonic in her hand was simply mean and withdrawn."

Two household servants, Maizelle and Nathaniel, were loyal to the Grove family. Like another Southern novel, Kathryn Stockett's popular The Help, they were always available to provide the care and attention to Bezellia and her younger sister that they didn't get from their parents.

Bezellia's mother treated them badly, and Maizelle and Nathaniel usually took it without complaint (except when Maizelle would occasionally spit into her boss's cup of coffee), although since the book is written from Bezellia's point of view, perhaps that is how Bezellia saw it. Another recent novel, Queen of Palmyra by Minrose Gwin, showed a more troubled and realistic relationship between the white employers and their black household employees.

Nathaniel's son Samuel comes to help his father one day, and sparks fly between Samuel and Bezellia. Nashville in the 1960s was not a place where a young white lady and a young black man could have an open relationship, and if Bezellia's mother or other townspeople found out, all hell would break loose.

The setting of the novel in the 1960s is key, as it addresses the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, and the feminist movement through the eyes of young people. It was an exhilarating, frightening time for all, but especially for young adults looking for their place in the world.

What I though this novel addressed really well was the concept of how your youthful experiences follow you through to adulthood. As the story progresses, we see why Bezellia's mother, who is a very unsympathetic character, became the sad, lonely, bitter alcoholic she was.  She ends up being the most complex character in the novel.

It also addresses an age-old dilemma for young people; what do you owe your family and what do you owe yourself? Bezellia goes away to college, but when family issues press, she must decide what comes first: her responsibility to family or to herself. Many readers will be able to relate to that.

At various points in the novel newspaper articles about the Grove family are inserted. It gives the reader a perspective of the family from the town's point of view. The first page is Bezellia's birth notice and the final page is her death notice, but perhaps Gilmore will grace us with the two-thirds of Bezellia's life that isn't in the book. She is a character worthy of more exploration.

Rating 3.5 out of 5 stars







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