Five Miles South of Peculiar – Angela Elwell Hunt

Five Miles South of Peculiar: A Novel by Angela Elwell Hunt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was read and reviewed via and for Netgalley (thanks, I think!).

My experience of this book was much like the way it describes small-town living: sweet and warm, but with some serious drawbacks. I liked the well-rounded and nicely fleshed out characters: each was unique and believable, and avoided falling into the pigeonhole traps they were tap-dancing around. They were given interesting things to do. Was there a bit too much “misunderstanding because nobody bothers to talk about it”? Yes. Was there also too much “God drops huge gifts into your lap when you least expect it” nonsense? Yes. This is the sort of story that makes me wonder whether the sort of thing described in this book actually happens to anyone (and if so, why them?), or if in its way it’s as pure a fantasy as anything Tolkien wrote. Were some of the interesting bits of business they were given pushed to their limits until I wanted them to just knock it off? Yes.

Three sisters grew up on the estate called Sycamores, which is, literally, five miles south of the town of Peculiar. (I was actually a little disappointed that a town was invented to make the title both metaphorical and literal.) There were the twins, Darlene and Carlene, who were inseparable until separated, and have barely been together since: while Carlene went off to seek glory as a singer in New York, Darlene has remained where she is and sought her own kind of glory as a wife and mother and community leader. Ten years younger is the “oops” baby, Magnolia, Nolie, who has steeped herself in her garden and her sewing and her dogs (Leonbergers, which are pretty cool) and seems to want for nothing else.

There was a certain element of predictability to the story. From the moment once-and-future-pastor Eric Payne drives up looking for work until he can find a new church, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that he will either live down to Darlene’s expectations and turn out to be a serial killer, or he’ll marry one of them (after a suitable period of waffling). After a very few pages it was pretty clear that there were going to be many instances of Misunderstanding Due To Lack Of Communication (Note: please, anyone who reads early drafts of anything I write, smack me in the head if I let my characters commit this crime of idiocy. Thanks).

Carlene, as the curtain opens on her first scene, is just finding out that the throat surgery she had a few months ago has been botched, and she is no longer the world-class singer she was: her Broadway career is over. She reacts drastically (I suppose one would), and when an invitation comes from the mayor of Peculiar (Darlene’s beau) to a 50th birthday party for her twin (and by extension herself) she breaks her pattern of avoidance and decides to go home for it, to stay at the estate and regroup and figure out what happens next. Naturally, when she shows up and draws the attention of the townsfolk who all believe she is a huge star (which she never was, and to be fair never pretended to be) and is seen talking with mayor Henry more often than might be construed as simple politeness, Darlene is fifty-seven varieties of upset. There’s a history between the twins relating to Carlene’s departure which is skillfully withheld for quite a while, and neatly inserted into the plot to justify at least some of both twins’ reactions, but by the time the cats begin to emerge from the bags I was already fairly fed up with their behavior.

Leonberger

I liked Nolie. I really did. I liked her simplicity. She isn’t stupid; she’s not the sharpest bulb, so to speak, but part of it is dyslexia which has not been officially diagnosed or dealt with, and part, I believe, is a touch of Elwood P. Dowd’s mother: “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant.” She is pleasant. Always, very. She is sweet. She makes aprons. She makes aprons for everyone – and after I typed that, I went back and knocked off a star from the rating. If it’s fall, she makes fallish aprons and gives them away. If it’s Christmas, she makes holiday-themed aprons and pedals her bike about to deliver them. If you’re a man, she’ll make you a manly apron with pockets for tools. Or if you garden there will likely be flowers or vegetables. Her sisters’ birthday presents? Spoiler! Aprons. It is her way of showing affection – but dear God, woman, how many flaming aprons does anyone need? It’s a habit that troubles

Carlene, and it should. Everyone else in town is okay with it, though. Me? I get it – I do: she needs an outlet and can’t find another way of showing it, and she is perhaps a touch obsessive compulsive. But before very long I was rolling my eyes hard enough to merit an apron made of fabric with little pictures of Visine all over it. I wanted to throttle her with the nearest apron until she started making some other garment. Spats, perhaps. Wouldn’t want to go crazy and start making things like, you know, clothes for the poor and orphans, no.

Woman from behind, wearing apron tied in bow.It’s a pity – there is good storytelling here. There is a fine line between “I’m not going to tell you what’s going on because I’m the author and this is how I outlined it to stretch over the whole book” and “I’m not going to tell you because you need to get to know the characters and care about it before I do”. Hunt manages this pretty well. There is some genuine pathos in the twins’ story. By the time the part of Nolie’s story I never guessed at comes out, I did care, and I felt sympathy.

But then she made another batch of aprons and the sympathy faded.

Poor Peculiar; in the days before I tried to review every book I read this would probably have stayed at a nice solid four. But no; I had to go and think about it after I finished reading. This is one of those books which was enjoyable to read, but which seems to act like some kind of delayed-reaction poison ivy. It’s only later that the little irritations that cropped up during reading really develop. And thus, three stars.

Actually, there is one more reason a star fell off the rating. The book is set in a fictional tiny town in Florida, and it is in a steel magnolia sort of way aggressively Southern. Reading this I was reminded of being twelve years old reading Anne of Green Gables and being completely baffled by the offhand hatred for Catholics (and others, but I was raised Catholic, so this was against me) expressed by these beloved characters. In Peculiar, there was an unsubtle anti-damn-Yankee sentiment that completely caught me off guard. I’m Connecticut, born and raised, so – if I wandered into Peculiar I’d automatically be loathed or at least mistrusted? Wow. How stunningly stupid and ugly and distasteful and antique – especially in a book I’ve seen labeled “Christian”.

Southern Christian only, I guess.

I can cross this author off my “ever reading again list”.

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