Back in February I read Fay by Larry Brown. Brown is a mid-list Southern author who's novel Joe, for which Fay is the next installment, was extremely well received by critics.
While Joe follows an abusive father, Fay is the story of his 17 year old daughter as she runs away. You need not read Joe to understand what is happening in Fay, however, for the record, most reviewers (professional and amateur) think Joe is a better book, even those who loved Fay.
Fay runs away from her terrible family situation. She is uneducated, naive, and beautiful. The books follows her as she makes her way down I-55 from Northern Mississippi to the Gulf. Along the way she meets good people and bad people. There is a little suspense, lots of drinking and smoking, some murder and plenty of sexual situations. Fay does not make the best choices, but she makes some true connections with a few people, especially a middle aged policeman named Sam. They are separated by some slightly unbelievable circumstances and the second half of the book follows each of their paths to try to reconnect; well Fay just keeps going while Sam is actively looking for her.
For the record, I personally did not enjoy this book, but that is not the reason I write these reviews or even read some books. When you are a librarian who works with readers, you need to look at each book you finish and think about the reader who would enjoy it. So the following paragraphs will not focus on my opinion, but rather, it is an assessment of who WOULD enjoy this book.
Appeal: Fay is a novel about white trash. This is not meant to be taken disparagingly. Fay knows she is white trash. What makes this interesting however, is that Brown writes about these people without resorting to stereotypes. This is refreshing. It is an honest look at the way people live right now in rural, and economically depressed, Mississippi. Brown lays out some terrible home situations for the characters, a bleak and hopeless future laid out in front of them, but also manages to show the goodness in many of these people, despite their lives. Fay moves through multiple towns and living situations, meeting well drawn, realistic characters. It may be shocking to some readers, but it all rings true.
More on the characters: this novel is not too heavy on plot. Things happen, there is a bit of suspense to pull the reader along, but the real point of the novel is to observe the characters. It is really more of a 500 page character sketch than a novel. Of course Fay and Sam are the best drawn characters here, but multiple secondary characters get the full treatment by Brown here. They are well rounded and time is spent on their thoughts, pasts, and current actions. If you like character sketches and don't mind if the plot isn't the author's priority, this is the book for you.
The style also reflects the character sketch nature of the novel. While most of the book is from Fay's point of view and another larger chunk is from Sam's, there are times when the reader is put in other characters' heads. One of the best was when we are in Sam's wife, Amy's, car with her.
As a result, the pacing is measured. The reader may spend 100 pages not really going anywhere, but rather, exploring characters, their motivations and their interactions. You have to slow down at times to figure out who's head you are in too. For the record, these were my favorite parts of the novel. It was when Brown tried to take the story somewhere that he began to lose me.
The tone and language work as a team here. This is a haunting, moving, moody, and heart-wrenching novel. The language is stark and gritty. They support each other to create a relentlessly hopeless feeling. Even when things are going well for Fay, we know this is not an ideal life. She may be better off than she was before the novel began, but this is not a life the reader aspires to. I know many readers who enjoy this type of book
Three Words That Describe This Book: southern, character sketches, heart-wrenching
Readalikes: For the record, many sources say Fay is an adult book for young adults. I respectfully disagree. While Fay has a young female protagonist, it is a very adult novel. I am not just referring to the drinking, smoking, and sex here either, although there is quite a bit of that. But rather, I think the focus on characters and lack of satisfying plot will not appeal to many young adults.
Although it does not have a southern setting, Rush Home Road by Lori Lansens feels very similar to Fay. Both are about the journeys of a young woman as she makes her way alone in the world, relying on the kindness of strangers and trying to make something of herself. Lansens' prose is more lyrical to underscore the historical and mystical tone of the novel, with Brown's language is gritty, rough, and stark to underlie his darker, more haunting tone. Both take a head-on look at the harshness of life, however.
For those who liked the gritty, southern setting, with family dysfunction, and a young female protagonist, I would also suggest, Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison and Walking Through Shadows by Bev Marshall.
Joshilyn Jackson is a contemporary southern writer with a slightly lighter tone. Also her female protagonists are more educated and a bit older than Fay.
Brown is often compared to William Faulkner. Both are distinctly southern writers with a complex style and an haunting tone in their works.
Finally, something a bit different. Fay is the story of a young girl, discarded by her family, and forced to make her way the best she can, including entering the sex industry. It is also narrated in the female voice by a male writer. If this interested you try Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. It is set in Japan with a historical frame, but shares much with Fay in terms of appeal.
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