A gem of a Southern novel

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

SOUTH OF HEAVEN. By Patti Frye Meredith. Mint Hill Books, Main Street Rag Publishing Company. $17.95, paperback.

Patti Frye Meredith’s South of Heaven is a gem of a Southern novel, one of those rare books that captures life in the South with all its contradictions and nuances without turning characters into caricatures, complete with exaggerated accents.

It’s a debut novel, but Meredith has been writing good Southern stories for years, most of them set in the mountains. Meredith grew up in Galax, Va., but has fond memories of Carthage, the book’s setting in the North Carolina Sandhills, from childhood visits to her grandparents. She’s moved with her husband as his career took him to several Southern states, and she writes now from their home in Chapel Hill, so we North Carolinians can claim her as one of our own.

This is the story of two adult sisters who  bear grudges against each other that go  back to childhood and whose infrequent interactions are always fraught. Leona, the elder sister, purposefully married well and has what appears to be the perfect life, complete with two children, an impressive house in Raleigh and a place at the coast.

Fern, the younger sister, has not fared nearly so well, but she’s learned to be content with her life as the single parent of her son, a young man in his early 20s who always says exactly what he thinks. Fern married young, and her husband went missing in action in Vietnam, 23 years earlier. She works part time at the small local newspaper and  lives in the family home in Carthage, not far from Southern Pines. Her son, Dean, lives with her, and so does the elderly aunt who raised Leona and Fern.

Now it’s 1998. As the Monica Lewinsky scandal holds the spotlight nationally, the sisters are worried about secrets of their own becoming hot news in their towns. The perfect marriage and life Leona worked so hard to create are  crumbling, and the discovery of the remains of Fern’s long-missing husband threatens to revive old  gossip and reveal a shameful secret from the days when she was young and foolish. Both sisters’ grown children are furious as they learn their mothers have kept important secrets from them.

Meredith has the dynamics of the small Southern town just right, as she weaves the story, weaving back and forth from the 1960s of the sisters’ youth to their predicaments in 1998. Those dynamics include the importance of the church and its sometimes self-righteous and gossipy congregation. But there’s a new twist to that element, too, in the person of a new pastor of the local Methodist church who moves in across the road from Fern. A widower with a young daughter, Rev. Roy Puckett is frank about his own doubts about his faith.

The sisters find themselves in something of an uneasy truce, living in their childhood home together. Despite differences, family ties are strong, and soon they and Dean find themselves in new businesses ventures – home decorating plus some emus.

Meredith’s story tells us much about the powerful bonds of family, about the toll keeping secrets can take on a person and about the pitfalls of worrying too much about appearances. It is a story of redemption, and second chances and what really matters.

Yet, the novel is never too heavy, always a delight to read. Meredith laces her story with an ample measure of humor. She deftly gives us the right amount of Southern expressions, customs and eccentricities. The main characters are fully developed and utterly believable.

North Carolina is known for having a strong literary tradition and a vibrant community of writers today. Patti Frye Meredith fits right in.

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