The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder
by Rebecca Wells
Harper, 416 pages
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I don’t remember when I was first introduced to Rebecca Wells’ work, though I know I read The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood years before there was ever a movie. Maybe even decades. It should, therefore come as no surprise that as soon as I first saw her latest book The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder, I had to buy it. What is surprising, is that I never saw the hardcover when it came out a year ago, so my first introduction to this new world was when I saw the trade paperback on the “new in paperback” table at Barnes and Nobel a couple of months ago.
I started the book before I left for Mexico, then set it aside to finish there, because I wanted to really savor it, and because I knew my mother would like to read it. Actually, I left her three of the five novels I brought with me. The hardcover I brought home, and am reading now, and the fourth paperback I read in the airport, and on the plane on the way home, finishing the last few pages before I went to bed. But, I digress…
Like Wells’ other work, Calla Lily’s story is set in Louisiana, and features strong women characters, but Calla’s story is nothing like the Ya-Yas, petite or original.
Calla grows up with parents who are completely in love with each other, and love her and her brothers just as strongly. Together, her parents teach dance lessons, and run a sort of open dance studio on weekends. Her father is a musician, sometimes, and her mother also owns the single chair “Crowning Glory Beauty Porch.” Calla inherits from her mother a love of the moon, and the ability to be a catalyst for healing when she does hair. If that latter concept sounds far-fetched, consider how much better most of us feel when we have a really good shampoo girl at the salon, or an amazing new cut, or change our hair color in just the right way.
Early in the story, Calla’s mother develops breast cancer, and dies, and her father shows himself to the be sort of quietly supportive, fiercely devoted parent that deserves every gift from the redenvelope father's day guide, and then some, but he also retreats into what is essentially a background character. The rest of the novel is Calla’s and we trace her journey from high school in her small town, to New Orleans in the early 1970’s where she goes to beauty school and becomes fast friends with Ricky, the best stylist and salon owner in town, and his partner, Steve (which combination of names seems ripped right out of that Steel Magnolias line about “all gay men have track lighting and all gay men are named Mark, Rick, or Steve”). She falls in love, marries, loses her love, and generally has the kind of touched-by-luck-and-love-and-magic life that can only be found in novels written by Southern authors.
Because this is essentially the autobiography of a fictional character, it’s difficult to give an adequate synopsis, but the book is enjoyable, with several laugh-out-loud (no, seriously, for real) moments.
Goes well with sweet tea and gumbo.