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Suggested Review Title:

When a Boy Listens to His Mom's Own Story

The Geography of Women
by Jack Fritscher
Palm Drive Publishing, 1998
ISBN 1-890834-25-4
142 pages, $9.95

Themes of home, heart, and alternative family are celebrated in some very current, interesting, and diverse novels. The new romantic-comedy novel, The Geography of Women, a very funny "fast read" of personal and gender identity spoken by the narrator, Laydia Spain O'Hara, joins the ranks of best-sellers by household names Dorothy Allison, Jane Hamilton, Rita Mae Brown, Jane Smiley, Allan Gurganus, and Rebecca Wells. In fact, Geography keeps excellent company in the pop-culture tradition of sassy tell-it-like-it-is novels: Rubyfruit Jungle, Bastard Out of Carolina, Fried Green Tomatoes, Oldest Living Confederate Widow, Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton.

Perhaps because Geography's author found "voice" in his own mother's storytelling, this inclusive comic novel seems to transcend gender, race, and politics to tell a happy human story accessible to most all readers. Women especially may embrace this novel. Certainly, its hugely appealing plot and characters may generate word-of-mouth to an audience of commute readers, airport travelers, and persons who prefer great storytelling novels for campsite or bedside. With good reason The Advocate tells readers: "Jack Fritscher writes wonderful books full of compas sion, humor, lyricism, and insight." Plus: this book can be judged by its strong, evocative cover!

Geography's writer is an author of the human heart whose previous best-selling novel, Some Dance to Remember, begins with the line: "In the end, he could not deny his human heart." Heart and sexy desire boost the romantic comedy of Geography's dialog: "My thigh-feelin made me dizzy as a cyclone about to set down on a couple of trailer parks." Colorful female characters drive a three-way girl-meets-girl plot. In a small southern-Illinois town in the 1950s, everybody minds everybody else's business. When tomboy Laydia Spain meets Miss Lulabelle--the bleached blond farmer's daughter, furniture and reputations fly around the room. When the "cinnamon- skinned" Jessarose comes to town, the novel comes to terms with its subject matter. What is a secret love that's not secret anymore? And does absence make the heart grow fonder? Or is the beloved when out of sight, also out of mind?

Laydia Spain narrates her life story at the close of the 20th century. She untangles the past of 14 female and male characters' small-town lives tied together from the 1950s of Elvis to the 1960s post-JFK. Her "stand-up comedy" tale of faces unmasking--and conflicts resolving to a happy ending--is a human journey about coming of age and inventing one's self, despite all gossip, while keeping the torch of true love burning girl-to-girl. In a triangle with her two best friends, Miss Lulabelle and Jessarose, Laydia Spain outwits convention, opens her own bed-and-breakfast, and discovers a sisterly solidarity in new ideas of family, home, and the human heart. The women's lives mirror the vast social changes of the 50s and 60s that led to today's liberation situation.

Ultimately, in Geography's fast-moving plot, the dark-skinned cinnamon girl, Jessarose, who takes off on the road to fame and fortune as a roadhouse blues singer, defines the new direction of love, because, while "the human face is a limitless terrain that just pulls you right in...the geography of women is where nature itself takes course homeward bound, the long route or the short, the high road or the low."

Actually, The Geography of Women resonates in the reader's head. The writing makes the characters so alive that one forgets the author exists. Laydia Spain, for instance, has a "voice" that can be heard on every page. Fritscher is a master of dialog. Laydia Spain is a female force of nature. She makes her own luck.

The Geography of Women reads as vivid as a fast-talking film script with music. Jack Fritscher's sixth book of fiction is lean writing laced with witty observations and a couple of tear drops of genuine human compassion. Basing his novel on stories told by his mother, to whom the novel is dedicated, Fritscher channels a real storyteller's tale of strong women living in the heartland of the Midwest. Nostalgia for the 1950s is a plus. The author deserves credit for pro- actively diversifying his "voice" throughout his long career. (Some other authors might take a note!) Highly recommended. The Geography of Women, Jack Fritscher (with, I'd like to add, Virginia Day-Fritscher), Palm Drive Publishing, 1998, 142 pages, $9.95.

--Terry Solomon


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