Plant Life, the second novel by North Carolina writer Pamela Duncan, adeptly captures the complex emotions of one Southerner's return home. Readers are introduced to Laurel Granger, a long-time resident of Las Vegas, shortly after her divorce from her husband of 15 years. Proving that age and station in life don't matter much when it comes to a broken heart, Laurel retreats home to Russell, North Carolina.
As December turns to February, Laurel eases slowly back into the familiar routine of small-town Southern life. After years of attempting to distance herself from the place and carefully monitoring her voice for even a trace of a North Carolina accent, she gradually begins to feel comfortable in her hometown once again. The absence of a place to buy a glass of wine and the constant bumping into former classmates, though, remain trials endured through gritted teeth.
With Laurel firmly re-established in Russell and employed at the same textile plant as her mother, a subtle transformation takes place. Laurel begins to appreciate being in a close-knit community. She allows her preferences and tastes to develop after years of ignoring them for the sake of her now defunct marriage. While the expected cast of traditional Southern characters makes an appearance in Duncan's novel, each is fully developed in a deliberate, meaningful way. From Laurel's high school sweetheart who, of course, is now married to a former cheerleader to the family neighbor who tenderly cares for Laurel's mother during an extended illness, Russell is populated by believable folks who are a far cry from the usual saccharine stereotypes.
A novel as much about personal strength and integrity as the daily lives of mill women, Plant Life beautifully captures the passage of two seasons in a small-town. Mentored by author Lee Smith, Pamela Duncan won fans and critical praise for her first novel, Moon Women, in 2001. With her second book, she confirms her place as a superior Southern storyteller. Whitney Weeks is a writer for Vanderbilt University in Nashville.