I picked up Leaving Eden because of the back cover endorsements from well-respected Women’s Fiction authors Kristin Hannah, Lornda Landvik and Adriana Trigiani. I was pleasantly surprised to find a sweet, sad but ultimately uplifting story about the summer that changed a young girl’s life.
At 16, Tallie Brock has experienced more than her share of tragedy and hardship. Four years ago her beautiful mother Dinah Mae disappeared from their small town of Eden, Virginia to pursue her dream of becoming a movie star. Tallie and her father were left to fend for themselves until Dinah returned from Hollywood six months later, unwilling to discuss what had happened so far from home. Tallie feared that her obviously unhappy mother would leave her again, and she was right, although the departure happened in a way that nobody had expected. Now Tallie pretty much raises herself while her grief-stricken father spends his days working and his nights drinking. Tallie gets by with some help from her mother’s best friend, Martha Lee and her boss Raylene at the Klip-N-Kurl salon.
When Tallie learns that a glamour photography studio is making a one-time appearance at the Klip-N-Kurl, she views the event as a golden opportunity to jump-start her own dreams. While Dinah Mae was almost the spitting image of Natalie Wood, Tallie looks nothing like her, and she hopes the makeover from “Glamour Day” will help her find the fame that eluded her mother. But other events during that summer of 1992 will overshadow the lure of Glamour Day, including the sudden interest of Spaulding “Spy” Reynolds, a rich and popular boy whom Tallie has worshipped from afar for years. Is a girl a slut if she French kisses on the first date? Tallie wishes her mother were still around to help her answer questions like that, but even her mother couldn’t have predicted the scandal and tragedy that will resonate through Eden, affecting Tallie and her dreams.
If you combine Lorna Landvik’s Patty Jane’s House of Curl and Adriana Trigiani’s Big Stone Gap novels, then drop the heroine’s age by 15 years or so, you get a close approximation of Leaving Eden. Tallie is a strong character who has suffered enormous losses without breaking. She cooks and cleans for her father, works part time at the Klip-N-Kurl and gets around town on her faithful bicycle. Without a mother or close friends, she is reduced to gleaning bits and pieces of womanly wisdom from the customers at the salon, which she faithfully enters into a spiral notebook. You know her dream of becoming an actress is doomed but you don’t want her spirit to be crushed by the inevitable confrontation with reality.
LeClaire, a Cape Cod resident, does a surprisingly good job at capturing small town Southern life without stooping to condescension or stereotype. The plot mosies along slowly with homespun charm at first, but the secrets that gradually emerge give the novel’s second half a much more serious tone.
While the story is unmistakably Tallie’s, a few of the female secondary characters make notable impressions. However, the male characters are sketchy at best, especially the object of Tallie’s affection, Spy, who feels more like a symbol than real character.
By the time I reached the book’s somewhat abrupt epilogue, I was sorry to let Tallie go. In just 290 pages I had laughed and cried with this unique 16 year old, and I wasn’t ready to say goodbye yet. I may have started reading the book because of other authors’ recommendations, but I finished it because of LeClaire’s obvious talent.