The first novel by popular essayist Bailey White, Quite a Year for Plums offers an intimate, gossipy, and occasionally irreverent glimpse into the friendship of a group of eccentrics in a small town in southern Georgia. Like a script, the book begins with a List of Characters, which is helpful for the first few chapters, as White tosses characters around as though you've known them all your life: There's Roger, the plant pathologist "specializing in foliar diseases of peanut"; Ethel, Roger's flirtatious ex-wife; Ethel's aunt, Eula, and her post-middle-age friends who share a motherly adoration for Roger; and a dozen quirky others who appear from time to time. As in White's acclaimed essay collections, Mama Makes up Her Mind and Sleeping at the Starlite Motel, she demonstrates here that the lives of small-town dwellers are easily as intriguing as those of their big-city counterparts if you take the time to look, and, clearly, White's years of observation are the secret behind her capable prose.
More than a novel, Quite a Year for Plums is a series of intertwining short stories, each chapter strong enough to stand alone. For instance, chapters about Della ("a wildlife artist visiting the area to study and paint local birds") an outsider, by the standards of this close-knit group, who upsets the status quo by unwittingly seducing the beloved Roger are true gems. In "A Nice Day," Roger falls in love with a woman he's never seen based on, of all things, the items she discards at the dump: "A white plastic fan, a ceramic container of wooden spoons . . . she left notes on some items . . . Roger's favorite, taped to a Hamilton Beach fourteen-speed blender: `Works good.' " When the woman, Della, finally appears, we learn why she frequents the dump: To her own consternation, she's become frustrated by a difficult portrait of Dominique chickens, and she discards things as a means of therapy. (" . . . when she began the feathers, a week of dizzying black and white, requiring such a light touch, delicate but not tentative, she threw out all of her kitchen utensils and most of her furniture.")White's characters in Quite a Year for Plums are sophisticated students of horticulture and agriculture. To that end, there are priceless collisions between ruralists and weekend wannabes. When Eula's sister, Louise, who lives next door, becomes increasingly preoccupied with hopes of attracting aliens through secret numerical codes, she's thought to be too crazy to live alone, so Eula moves Louise in with her and arranges to have Louise's home rented out for the spring. In "Impassioned Typographer" and "Impassioned Typographer II," a couple from Kansas rent the home for an extended country vacation, but what begins as a romantic getaway ends in divorce as the husband reveals his passion for piecing together letters and numbers from discarded road signs. Louise finds kinship with him and moves happily back into her own home with him, begging the question, what is crazy, if it all works out?Fans of White's earlier books will like A Good Year for Plums even more, and hope for more fiction from her in the future.
Reviewed by Rosalind S. Fournier.