Rebecca Wells' new novel "The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Pounder" introduces a new heroine, but she and her friends demonstrate the same sweetness, spunk and grit as the Ya-Yas. Wells reads July 10 at Seattle Public Library and July 14 at Bainbridge Performing Arts.
Fans of the Ya-Yas are in luck: Rebecca Wells is back, with a new novel whose ponderous title introduces a charming heroine in a new cast of richly eccentric Louisianans. They’re not Ya-Yas — members of that fictitious sorority that made “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” and Wells’ two related novels such enduring best-sellers.
But the eponymous star of “The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder” (Harper, 391 pp., $25.99) and her girlfriends might well be close relatives of those earlier characters: strong-minded, charismatic, deeply loyal and possessed of a sort of gonzo femininity that verges on mysticism.
Calla Lily is a sweetie who’s almost too good to be true. She’s pure of heart, spunky and resilient, deeply devoted to her adoring family, and equipped with magically healing hands that massage the troubles right out of the scalp of her hairdressing clients. She also hears messages from the Moon Lady, a benevolent mythical being who oversees La Luna, the little Louisiana community named for her.
All Calla Lily wants is to be a beautician in La Luna and to have her loved ones (family, friends and a certain boy) close at hand. But after she suffers two devastating losses, not even her two best girlfriends Renee and Sukey can comfort her. Calla Lily saves up her money and lights out for the Big Easy, to attend L’Académie de Beauté de Crescent (“one of the finest beauty academies in the South, bar none”). There she meets the gifted instructor Ricky, who — like Calla Lily — has magical hands; he informs his student, “… it is no accident that beautician and magician sound so similar.”
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It is Ricky who shows Calla Lily the way forward after her heart break, not only by imparting his hairdressing and laying-on-of-hands techniques, but also by introducing her to his cousin Sweet, a Cajun charmer (“Oh! He was gorgeous,” explains Calla Lily, the novel’s first-person narrator). Sweet and Calla Lily engage in a most courtly courting, but not long after they agree to “laissez les bons temps rouler” (“let the good times roll”), it becomes clear that fate has not yet ceased tweaking Calla Lily. How she deals with all this, and finds her way back to the comfort of her hometown, make entertaining reading — even if Wells does resort to one of the hoariest of all plot conventions in solving the novel’s key misunderstanding.
Bainbridge Island resident Wells has chosen a highly sympathetic, but naïve and relatively uneducated, narrator in Calla Lily. The tone of the narration veers between the poetic and cultivated style that is Wells’ own, and (more frequently) the gee-whiz phrasing of someone folksier and less sophisticated.
Here’s an example of the latter, when Calla Lily’s beauty-school teacher Ricky steps in to save a client from an allergic reaction to hair dye:
“Now, I want you to know that that woman’s head would have swole up and she would have died if Ricky hadn’t had the sixth sense that something was wrong. I’m not kidding, people die from dye reactions. Ricky saved that woman’s life! It was a beauty miracle.”
This is a novel full of miracles, with characters more colorful than a Crayola 64-crayon box. It’s just the right dose of Southern charm for that afternoon on the veranda, accompanied by a tall glass of sweet iced tea.
Melinda Bargreen is the former classical-music critic for The Seattle Times. She’s a freelance contributor to the Times and reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM (www.king.org).