Read, However: The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder

I can’t say this one was “better read than never”, which faithful readers of this site expect my book reviews to be (sub)titled. I don’t really know why I read it, although I did like the cover photo of a summery small girl leaping into a river, even more than I disliked the magenta cast of the author’s name – REBECCA WELLS – on the front and the full-back-jacket glossy of the writer. The dust jacket of the book fairly screamed Back away now, Howdy, this ain’t meant for the likes o’ you, but it was in my bedroom (ah, the price of marriage is a sometime surprise!) and I was tired and I never meant to actually finish it and besides I’d heard of Ms. Wells’s Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and thought I’d do a little slumming in the bestseller swamp. Arrogance is bliss, too.

By the way, the book is called The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder, and the selfsame Ms. Ponder is the small-town Louisiana girl who narrates the piece, from her childhood to a second shot at thirty-something love. There’s a whole Ya-Ya thing, I’ve been hearing, among North American women (the original set of stories, Little Altars Everywhere, spawned two novels on the same characters), but this novel is not part of that sisterhood. However, I do now feel that I am something of an honorary sister myself. I should be, for I now know more about girl talk, haircuts, and fashion choices than seems strictly necessary. I now have a vague sense of the difference between a “page boy” cut and whatever.

Yes, it is about as chicky as chick-lit can get, and makes something like The Help look like timeless literature. At times the writing just made me groan, partly because it’s often rather ponderous (did Ms. Wells choose that character name as a defence against nerdy criticism?) and partly because the author was unstoppable enough to do it. That counts, for me, in BIG numerals, so I followed Calla’s loves and curling irons through to the end. I was darned glad when I got there, but I know something of Cajun cookery and New Orleans nightspots and the inner spirit of hairdressing than I did before. Maybe that counts, too.

At my most benevolent, I can review Crowning Glory (it’s a biblical reference to women’s hairdos) as a positive boost to the reading of books by unpretentious women. I can see it as testament to the natural human desire for stories. Stories, stories, tell us more stories! I have a grudging admiration for someone who can get her derriere in front of a keyboard long enough to make novels, and to make what must be a remarkably fine living doing it, without any very obvious writerly skills. (Except for the most obvious, though not widely credited skill: sitting down over and over again to generate and manipulate words that may never be seen by anybody-but-you.) It’s a very moral book, uplifting even though some key characters (conveniently, or not) suffer and die, and Wells does have a spiritual inclination and an eye for quirky, almost random details that lighten her generally pedestrian prose.

It irritates me. It’s a stone in my shoe, and I think I’m going to leave it in there for awhile. Maybe that’s why I read the thing, instead of the many better books that I’ve paid to read but which stare accusingly from the window-ledge of my study. Reading about Calla Lily Ponder required nothing of me but idling hours, which is both the good news about it and the damnation. Wells’s novel – my first and last experience of her work – reminded me of something that Robert Benchley, early 20th-century writer, humorist and actor, said: “It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.” His sarcasm comes true, in the case of Ms. Wells, and I suspect that she wouldn’t care at all that a frustrated writer like me is grumpy about her work. She knows what she’s doing.

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