Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani
(Random House, $25, G) ISBN 0-375-40947-5
****
Big Stone Gap is the follow-up novel to Fried Green Tomatoes that Fannie Flagg should have written. Unfortunately for Ms. Flagg, Big Stone Gap is the debut effort from talented newcomer Adriana Trigiani. If you like stories about small town life and eccentric but lovable characters, park yourself on your front porch with this book and a cool drink and get ready for a good ol' time.

In her 36th year, life unexpectedly changes for Ave Maria Mulligan, the self-proclaimed spinster of Big Stone Gap, Virginia. Several months after her beloved mother passes away, Ave Maria learns that her late father was not her biological parent. Ave's mother was already pregnant when she left Italy at the age of 17 to avoid disgracing her family. She met Fred Mulligan on her way to settle in Big Stone Gap and the two forged an uneasy marriage. Now Ave Maria understands why she was never close to her father, and why he looked at her "the way you would look through the thick glass of a jelly jar to see if there's any jelly left." But this surprising revelation has just begun to shake up Ave's quiet world.

Ave has always been organized and efficient, good qualities for the town pharmacist. She takes care of other people and rarely makes waves. But now she starts speaking up for herself and daring to revisit her long-repressed dreams. Her faithful weekly visits to the County bookmobile have nourished Ave's hunger to explore the world beyond Big Stone Gap. At the same time, things in her little coal mining town heat up as well. Her best friend Theodore, a high school teacher, suddenly looks at her as if she's more than a pal. A chance meeting with miner and musician Jack MacChesney opens up more romantic possibilities. Ave's bitter Aunt Alice threatens to sue for possession of the pharmacy when the secret about Ave's paternity is revealed. And Big Stone Gap is all abuzz with the news that Senatorial candidate John Warner and his wife, Elizabeth Taylor, are making the town a stop along the 1978 campaign trail.

Author Adriana Trigiani actually did grow up in Big Stone Gap during the 1970s, and judging from this novel, she has great affection for her hometown. Her story is heartwarming, charming and just slightly offbeat. The wondrously-named Ave Maria Mulligan has a voice that is straightforward but thoughtful, as she struggles to re-define herself:

For the first time in my life, I feel the thread of who I am unravel. I am one of those people who swears she knows herself well, who in any given situation can be described and counted on to behave in a certain way. I never yell at people, nor do I make speeches. I usually make a joke, so everyone will feel at ease. But something.compelled me to speak. Where did she come from?

Practical Ave Maria must go. Me. The never-married town pharmacist who is never caught without her first aid kit. Me. So responsible she carries two spare tires in her Jeep instead of one.

Of course, any novel set in a small Southern town wouldn't be complete without a few colorful characters. The best of the lot is Fleeta Mullins, Ave's lone employee at the pharmacy, who savors the opportunity to fill Ave in on the joys of marital bliss (in detail). Ave's cherished bookmobile is driven by Iva Lou Wade, the "good time gal who's yet to place the flag on her sexual peak." Two other characters of note are Otto and Worley Olinger, handyman brothers whose relationship is more complex than anyone suspects.

The visit from John Warner and Elizabeth Taylor, based on an actual incident, is mostly played for laughs. Trigiani may poke gentle fun at the absurd lengths the townspeople go to impress the glamorous movie star, but she does so without condescension.

The first person present narrative is occasionally awkward, especially when Ave Maria suddenly switches into past tense to recall recent events. But for the most part the style allows the reader to experience the tumultuous events as they happen, right along with Ave Maria. The novel's moral may be nothing more profound than "the great mysteries of life can only be solved person to person," but given the entertaining story and characters, the homespun wisdom is welcome. The movie rights for Big Stone Gap have already been sold, so I recommend you take a trip there soon before Hollywood mangles this delightful novel.

--Susan Scribner


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