"The author writes with lovely prose, a rock-solid voice, and a fine ear for the period and region."
After recovering from the initial shock that this historical fiction book was set in the year I was born, I found the chapters of Karen Cox’s Son of a Preacher Man a delightful romp through a rural Virginia teetering on the cusp of the tectonic changes the ‘60s would bring. Billy Ray Davenport and Lizzie Quinlan, the well-drawn main characters, are a study in contrasts. The eponymous preacher’s son, Billy Ray, finds himself apprenticed the summer before he heads off to medical school to a doctor in one of the small towns on his father’s preaching circuit. Lizzie comes from the wrong side of the tracks with some dubiously deserved baggage as the town’s trollop. Although their staggering into romance is inevitable from the start, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable unfolding.
The author writes with lovely prose, a rock-solid voice, and a fine ear for the period and region. The supporting cast is well thought out and sufficiently developed for their narrative purposes, although one or two—the doctor’s oversexed and vindictive daughter is an example—were a bit too straight out of central casting. This was only a minor distraction. As I progressed through the book, a subtle familiarity began to emerge—not surprising given the author’s manifest interest in Jane Austen. The initially haughty Billy Ray and the precocious and independent-minded Lizzie (note the name) were certainly redolent of Pride and Prejudice, but not so heavy handedly that it raised much more than a wry smile from another devoted fan of Ms. Austen.
The book is at its strongest when confined to the environs of Orchard Hill, Lizzie's hometown and the site of Billy Ray’s medical apprenticeship. This fictitious southern Virginia town is so vividly—almost lovingly—drawn that it springs from the pages in three-dimensional technicolor, full of sounds and smells and quotidian bustle. The author captures the rhythm of life with pitch-perfect accuracy and detail: the Sunday supper, summer nights on the front porch swing, bored teenagers cruising by the steamy laundromat where Lizzie and Billy Ray stand out front to catch a breath of breeze. The depiction of a languid, sultry summer without air conditioning was a delight to read and provided an atmospheric analog to the smoldering sexuality between the two main characters. However, the narrative loses some of its punchy tautness when the action moves to the city where Billy Ray is in medical school.
Overall, the book was an enjoyable read that went down like sweet tea in August. It would have gained from another thoughtful revision of the last quarter, since it seemed the author was struggling to find her way to a satisfactory ending. During these last chapters the dialogue between the main characters, previously true to the voices of two young people on the brink of independent adulthood, veers off course a little. Although Billy Ray, as one would expect from a preacher’s son, peppers his speech throughout the book with Biblical odds and ends—something quite natural in Virginia, I can assure you as a current resident—he slides perilously close to exegesis toward the end, with his chapter-and-versing ponderous at times. Both Lizzie and Billy Ray begin to speak in long, discursive paragraphs that cut against their carefully crafted personalities.
Regardless of these few weaknesses, this is a delightful read filled with characters and places I found as comfortable to slip into as a favorite pair of jeans.
© Jeffrey K. Walker
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