'Bezellia Grove': Love Across The Color Line

Alan Cheuse reviews The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove, a coming-of age-novel by Susan Gregg Gilmore set in Nashville. Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Virginia.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Susan Gregg Gilmore is back on her home turf. Her first novel, "Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen," was set in Georgia. Her new novel is called "The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove." It's set in Nashville, where its author was born and still lives.

Alan Cheuse has this review.

ALAN CHEUSE: Southern girlhood, family, social class and race, of course, matter a lot in this coming-of-age novel about a Tennessee socialite with the wild gene in the family. Bezellia Grove, her roots go way back, and novelist Susan Gregg Gilmore posits her life from birth notice to obituary. But the most important part of her experience comes in the 1960s - that's when Bezellia, fending off physical attacks by her alcoholic mother, enjoys lyrical summers swimming in her grandparents' pond. But she soon gives up all of these as she discovers her sexual soul and falls in love across the color line with Samuel, the college-bound son of the Grove family's resident maid and her handyman husband.

In a scene with echoes from "Huckleberry Finn," she gives herself to Samuel. He lifted himself up on his hands, she tells us, and looked down at my face, and I knew if I was going to hell, then Samuel was going with me.

Bezellia has other suitors, a white boy who ends up making a career in country music and making a hit song out of their infatuation, and an attractive but indifferent professor at Hollins where she goes to college.

Samuel goes to college and then to the Vietnam battlefield and remains the love of her life. Only when shotgun-toting grandma saves Bezellia from rape and Samuel from a latter-day lynching does their story reach a crescendo. But the book then abruptly ends. You shouldn't read this novel for style. Frankly, Gilmore doesn't show much flare for style. She does take news from the underground life of the modern American South and tell it straight to our face.

SIEGEL: "The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove" is by Susan Gregg Gilmore. Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University.

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