Melanie Sumner
The New Face of Southern Charm

audio Listen to Melanie Peeples' profile of Melanie Sumner.

Aug. 30, 2001 You can, indeed, go home again. But in the case of Melanie Sumner, the homecoming can be a bit tricky. On Morning Edition, Melanie Peeples talks to Sumner, whose upcoming novel takes a wickedly funny look at small Southern towns like the author's native Rome, Ga.

Melanie Sumner
Melanie Sumner
Photo: Saskia Vanderlingen, Courtesy Algonquin Books

Sumner's The School of Beauty and Charm, to be published next month, satirizes life in those towns, from elitist civic clubs to her own parents' religion -- subject matter that would be difficult for people like her mother to read.

The writer spent most of the last 20 years as a Southern expatriate, downplaying her accent and poking fun at her roots. The former Peace Corps volunteer taught English in Senegal, wrote Polite Society, a book of short stories about it, then later reported on weather conditions in Alaska.

And until recently, Sumner had been living in New Mexico. But shortly before her new novel was to come out, an illness in the family brought the writer back to Rome, where her parents still live.

"Although much of the architecture in Counterpoint has enough historic significance to warrant a plaque, Bellamy Baptist Church was built to appear eternally new. It is beige, inside and outside: beige brick, beige trim, beige carpet, beige pew cushions. Since stained glass windows don't come in beige, we compromised with pastel, which shine weakly in contrast to the brilliantly colored windows of the Catholic church next door ..." -- from The School of Beauty and Charm

The School of Beauty and Charm follows Louise Peppers, a girl on the edge of self-awareness -- or total damnation. Under pressure to conform to her parents' idea of a proper young lady, Louise turns to gin, sex, drugs, and a fire-eating carnie named Zane. What emerges is a comic testimony of what it's like growing up white, affluent, female, and Southern Baptist in the fictional town of Counterpoint, Ga.

The School of Beauty and Charm book cover
The School of Beauty and Charm
Photo: Algonquin Books

Sumner says her youth wasn't as wild as Louise's, but she did feel like an outsider in her own hometown. Writing the book helped her come to terms with the friction of growing up in the South, she says. And, at 37, she's come to appreciate her parents and accept the place where she grew up.

"I thought I'd broken off, and I'm back," Sumner tells Peeples. "I just have this sense of the South: that you're tied to it for always, and tied to certain traditions. Even though you may intellectually disagree with it, you're still a part of that family and even though you can pull away, as far as you want to, you won't snap off and you'll be pulled back."

Other Resources

Read an extended excerpt of The School of Beauty and Charm (Algonquin Books) by Melanie Sumner.