Set in 1960′s Nashville, The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove, follows the aforementioned Bezellia as she navigates her sometimes treacherous adolescence. Burdened by the weight of her illustrious family name, and the heft of traditional southern society, which she at times finds onerous, Bezellia is one trying to find her own way. Her relationship with her mother is contentious, at best, and given her mother’s mysterious past, alcoholism and mental illness, it informs Bezellia’s story in a variety of ways but especially in her closest relationships.
This is my first experience reading the work of Susan Gregg Gilmore, though firmly in the back of my mind was the popularity of her first novel, Looking For Salvation at the Dairy Queen. Based on reviewer response to that book, I expected that would be in for a treat with this one. Bezellia Grove builds slowly as the reader acclimates to the lush and beautiful settings, societal eccentricities and the quirky characters inhabiting Bezellia’s life . I really felt for Bezellia and was caught up in seeing how she would deal in the face of her father’s relentless absenteeism and her mother’s cruel streak. Bezellia forms extremely close bonds with the household staff, Maizelle and Nathaniel. They understand what goes on in her life and seek to buffer her from some of it, but even those relationships become more tense when Bezellia and Samuel, Nathaniel’s intelligent and handsome son, take a mutual interest in each other.
I enjoyed the way the problematic nature of this interracial relationship was explored within the context that Bezellia would have understood it . Her existence, though troubled, is a privileged one and Samuel is able to open her eyes to the way she comes across, and is perceived but others, but her yearning, behavior, and understanding is still tempered by the world she knows and how she has been raised.
Gilmore does a great job in crafting characters that the reader grows to care for deeply and I was intensely curious about the life that Bezellia would choose to lead in light of her experiences. Though the novel is fraught with alcoholism, mental illness, troubled relationships, and abuse of power by the privileged class, there is a levity that keeps it from ever becoming overwhelming. The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove is satisfying exploration of what constitutes love and how the bonds of love can be irrevocably changed by well meaning acts. This is a novel easily enjoyed for one’s own pleasure or with a book group.
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