The author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, Fannie Flagg has perfected a foolproof recipe for whimsical tales of Southern discomfort. Her latest novel, set in her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, is a comedy-mystery featuring a group of post-menopausal estate agents – a golden-girl romp every bit as eccentric as it sounds.
The joys of heritage property lie at the heart of the novel, in particular the gracious mansions of Red Mountain, homes that occupy the fantasy life of many upwardly mobile Birminghamites. For the 60-year-old Maggie Fortenberry, the genteel heroine of the novel, it is the neighbourhood she has always dreamed of living in. Instead, she finds herself selling the dream to others via her successful business, Red Mountain Realty. Maggie appears a chipper and well-liked singleton. A former Miss Alabama, she knows 40 ways to tie a scarf, likes to decorate her notes with smiley faces and has never "cussed" in public. But behind this polished exterior life is unravelling – she has written a suicide note (minus the smiley face) and cancelled all but one of her credit cards.
The trigger for Maggie's depression is the death of her mentor and colleague, Hazel Whisenknott, a 3ft 4in human dynamo who, when asked about her mood, liked to reply: "I'm feeling a little more short-statured than height-challenged today." Also grieving for Hazel are Maggie's co-worker Brenda (who wants to run as the city's first black woman mayor) and Ethel, the firm's octogenarian office manager. It wouldn't be a Flagg novel without a group of tightly-knit – possibly gay – female friends.
It is not only Maggie's colleagues who keep coming between her and her destiny. A piece of prime real estate also blocks her path. When Crestview, the first house to be built on Red Mountain, comes on the market unexpectedly, Maggie finds herself hell-bent on keeping this turreted folly out of the hands of a rival realtor, "Babs the Beast of Birmingham", Hazel's one-time nemesis.
From this point, the narrative starts to resemble Murder She Wrote. A skeleton (dressed in a plaid kilt) is found in a trunk in a Crestview bedroom and a figure from Maggie's past makes a welcome appearance. While Flagg's portrait of Southern sisterhood can feel over-stuffed and over-heated, there is something touching about her plucky, world-weary survivors that has us rooting for them all the way.
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