The Book of Polly: A Novel
“a very funny, poignant novel about a strong-willed girl and the even stronger, decidedly colorful mother who loves her.”
“It’s not my fault that the gray of everyone else’s stories makes [my] color stand out.”
And stand out Polly Havens does. Kathy Hepinstall seems to revel in revealing Polly to the reader in all that character’s straight shooting, margarita-cigarette-and-gun-toting glory in Hepinstall’s newest novel, The Book of Polly.
Widowed at 58 after a long marriage and with two grown children, Polly discovered she was again pregnant. Bucking the well-meaning advice of friends and doctors, she carried this late life child, Willow, and thrived.
Willow Havens has grown up without a father or, effectively, siblings. At the novel’s open, she is a sassy 10 year old, determined to find out more about the family she just missed and her mother’s secret past. She’s also a terrified child, well aware that her mother is as much as four decades older than the mothers of her school friends.
The Book of Polly is a very funny, very “southern,” and at times poignant look at an intergenerational clash between Polly and Willow. Very much a product of her upbringing, Polly is closemouthed about her past, preferring to concentrate on the here and now. She is also circumspect about her own failings or those of her family: she will acknowledge neither the alcoholism of her son and late husband nor the “bear” (there is no way she’s saying “cancer”) in her own life.
Willow is similarly a product of her own times, full of curiosity and openness. And she’s a fine liar, much to Polly’s outward horror and secret delight.
The southern yarn genre has been well represented by the likes of Fannie Flagg, Jan Karon, and Mark Childress (and whose novels this one will inevitably be compared to). Hepinstall, though, by telling her story entirely through the eyes of Willow, a child, has approached a more rarified sub-genre, and one occupied by far fewer writers—Harper Lee and Mark Twain spring to mind.
Much like Scout’s adoration of Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird, Willow has a child’s eye view of Polly that is as charming as it is deceiving. Polly’s larger-than-life antics, her feuds with neighbors and fierce protectiveness of her children, even the adult ones, are untainted by adult cynicism. Hepinstall’s Willow is no adult Ya-Ya, looking back on a mother who was different in an age of conformity and difficult at all times. Though Polly assuredly would have shared those traits with Rebecca Wells’ maternal character in her Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, the reader gets to see her humor rather than the perverseness an adult would recognize.
Hepinstall’s choice to keep the novel in the point of view of Willow makes for a riotously funny novel. The reader gets to know a few characters intimately, much as does a child. We know just as much about Willow’s Texas hometown as a child would—not a lot—and just about as much about Polly’s Louisiana upbringing. That keeps the story small and homely. The fates of Polly and Willow, of Phoenix and Dalton and the Montosaurus brats who live just over the fence become vital.
Hepinstall also lavishes a wealth of rich, evocative language in her story. When she describes about the “hot, cat-tongue smell of that gymnasium,” there is immediate understanding. When we hear that Polly “once paid a little girl to knock on his (the neighbor’s) door and ask to borrow a cup of dumbass,” we see the scene in all its glory.
Willow does age in the story, which is one of its weak points. Ten to sixteen was a big jump in just over 300 pages—and unnecessary when a shorter span would have worked as well. Readers might quibble at the way the story gets from one age to the other, meandering like a slow river, but that aspect fits the southern yarn better than any quick jump from point to point.
More to the point, Hepinstall stays true to her characters. Willow is no more self-aware than any child—Polly is clearly the star of her personal show—but her fear of her mother’s death is poignant at any age. She, in one of her lowest points, is also allowed one of the best observations in a pithy, observation-filled novel: “This is what life does to you. It takes you any way it can. Sometimes it hits you with a truck. Sometimes it promotes you, but always, life is there to take away the parts that are just you and replace them with something common to a crowd.”
Polly, however, remains uncommon to the end, bringing hope and light to an ambiguous book ending that could have been frustrating and instead follows through with the joyful expectation of a child.
The Book of Polly is a very funny, poignant novel about a strong-willed girl and the even stronger, decidedly colorful mother who loves her. This is a true bright spot in an industry that often rewards mopeyness and cynicism over light.