Quite a Year for Plums
by Bailey White
(Vintage Books, $12.00) ISBN 0-679-76492-5
***
In order to appreciate Quite a Year for Plums, it would probably help to have read Bailey White’s previous works (I had, and enjoyed them immensely) and also be Southern born and raised (I wasn’t). This book is rather like going around the outside of a house and peering through the windows, one by one, over and over. If you do it long enough you’ll probably figure out what’s going on inside, but it will take time, and not every reader will have the patience for it.

Plums revolves around the lives of a group of people in small-town Georgia. The central character is Roger, a plant pathologist specializing in diseases of the peanut. We also meet his randy ex-wife, Ethel; her mother, Louise (who is slipping into dementia and trying to attract aliens to the backyard); her aunt Eula; Jim Wade, an electric fan collector; Della, a bird artist; Hilma and Meade, a pair of retired schoolteachers; and various others.

The story opens with Roger being featured on the cover of an agricultural magazine, and everyone in town posting his picture somewhere. Easygoing Roger is a favorite with most of the folks in town, and he’s surprised to find himself falling in love with a woman he’s never met -- a woman who leaves things at the town dump with notes attached to them. (On a Hamilton Beach blender a note: "Works good.") Roger’s determination to meet this woman (who turns out to be Della, the bird artist) and her polite, if vague interest in Roger is a thread throughout the book.

The book is structured more or less in vignette form. Each chapter is a stand-alone glimpse into the lives of one or more characters (peering though that particular window), a format that makes the novel loosely-structured at best and somewhat exasperating at worst. Because the point of view is usually omniscient, readers aren’t given much access to characters’ thoughts. It takes time to understand these people. As the story drifts from season to season, person to person, readers could be forgiven for thinking, "What’s the point here?"

Bailey White’s prose is always gentle and laced with humor, and Plums is no exception. Her specialty is the off-kilter, the eccentric; here her talents shine as she brings her beloved south Georgia to life and peoples it with her own brand of quirky folks. (Based on her earlier books, I think some of them are biographical. I’m pretty sure Lucy, the nematologist, is one of her relatives, and there are others who seem familiar.) Readers will be nodding their heads as these people ring a familiar chord. Jim Wade, for example, with his passion for early-model electric desk fans -- well, who doesn’t know someone with a passion for collecting something a little out of the ordinary?

The joy in this book is the appreciation of small things. Woodpeckers, camellias, ancient horses, cold springs, local eateries, jigsawed pigs -- all have a part. All invite the reader to stop, relax, sit down, and immerse.

Quite a Year for Plums soothes even as it exasperates. My guess is that readers who enter without any expectations at all will be pleased with what they find. Others who are used to more obvious styles of plot structure may wonder what the fuss is about. The real charm here is Bailey White’s voice, which is definitely something to be experienced.

--Cathy Sova


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