First published in April 2018.
I adored Kaye Gibbons Ellen Foster, and very much enjoyed Sights Unseen too. Charms for the Easy Life, first published in 1993, is the author’s fourth novel. Alice Hoffman, whose writing and stories I find have the same lovely intelligent but easygoing prose as Gibbons’, writes that the novel ‘is filled with lively humour, compassion and intimacy’.
Charms for the Easy Life tells the story of three generations of ‘fiery’ women, living without men: Charlie Kate Birch, a ‘self-proclaimed doctor who treats everything from leprosy to lovesickness with her roots and herbs’, her daughter Sophia, ‘who has inherited her mother’s wisdom and will and applies them to her desire to rule the world around her and land the man of her choice’, and granddaughter Margaret, ‘whose struggle towards adulthood is complicated by World War II’. Margaret is the novel’s captivating narrator, and lives with her mother and grandmother in the ‘lush, green backwoods’ of North Carolina.
As is usual with first person perspective-driven novels, we learn about the other characters through Margaret’s portrayal of them. Charlie Kate, particularly, is strong and forward-thinking: ‘My grandmother was to be remembered for many achievements, from campaigning for in-school vaccinations to raising money to buy prosthetics for veterans of the world war, but in the Beale Street area of Raleigh she lives in the memory of an old few as the first woman anybody knew with the courage not only to possess a toilet but to use it.’ Sophia is more of a shadowy figure at times, largely absent from much of the prose.
The Birch family have historically been plagued by problems. Their family has a remarkably high suicide rate, which is detailed in oddly beautiful prose in the first chapter. Margaret tells us, of her remaining family members: ‘They threatened to kill themselves in the river all the time. They used the threat in arguments with each other. They said the words without thinking… But they didn;t go in the river, because the river was life to them, life all surging and all crashing into white foam on river rocks they had known their whole lives, and the thought of throwing themselves into a familiar current and banging choked and goggle-eyed against rocks they had stood on and courted on and fished and dreamed on, and sat in the sun and dared to open their blouses and nurse their babies on, this was not something they could do. They would walk fifty miles and jump in some other person’s river, but not their own.’ As is evident from this description, Gibbons creates such a vivid sense of place, and her writing feels continuously effortless.
The novel has been slotted so well into the looming threat of war; Gibbons startlingly describes conditions at the time, and is particularly involved with those lives lived without privilege, or in dire poverty. Myriad details ground Charms for the Easy Life nicely into history, with references to popular culture, and mentions every now and again of wider conflict. Gibbons also notes how important small changes, or transformations, in the world are to her protagonists, and how these changes translate into their own selves. This is particularly poignant when she writes about ageing: ‘[Sophia] was showing signs of loneliness. She had recently begun the process of resigning herself to the slide from beautiful lady to handsome older woman, adjusting her lipstick color from fire-engine red to brick, exchanging bright beads for pearls and stylish platform soles for pumps. And by “process,” I mean just that: she had not fully committed her body to middle age yet.’
Thoughtful in its outlook, and with a fascinating and tender story about non-conformist women at its heart, Charms for the Easy Life is a novel which I would definitely recommend. The relationships drawn here have so much complexity about them, and the story takes directions which I did not expect. I shall close this review with a wonderful quote from the novel: ‘If my grandmother could’ve populated the world, all the people would’ve been women, and they all would’ve been just like her.’