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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

BPL Book Discussion: I Still Dream About You

On Monday the group met to discuss the upbeat, character driven I Still Dream About You by Fannie Flagg.  Here is the publisher's summary to get us started:

The beloved Fannie Flagg is back and at her irresistible and hilarious best in I Still Dream About You, a comic mystery romp through the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, past, present, and future.
Meet Maggie Fortenberry, a still beautiful former Miss Alabama. To others, Maggie’s life seems practically perfect—she’s lovely, charming, and a successful real estate agent at Red Mountain Realty. Still, Maggie can’t help but wonder how she wound up in her present condition. She had been on her hopeful way to becoming Miss America and realizing her childhood dream of someday living in one of the elegant old homes on top of Red Mountain, with the adoring husband and the 2.5 children, but then something unexpected happened and changed everything.
Maggie graduated at the top of her class at charm school, can fold a napkin in more than forty-eight different ways, and can enter and exit a car gracefully, but all the finesse in the world cannot help her now. Since the legendary real estate dynamo Hazel Whisenknott, beloved founder of Red Mountain Realty, died five years ago, business has gone from bad to worse—and the future isn’t looking much better. But just when things seem completely hopeless, Maggie suddenly comes up with the perfect plan to solve it all. 
As Maggie prepares to put her plan into action, we meet the cast of high-spirited characters around her. To Brenda Peoples, Maggie’s best friend and real estate partner, Maggie’s life seems easy as pie. Slender Maggie doesn’t have to worry about her figure, or about her Weight Watchers sponsor catching her at the Krispy Kreme doughnut shop. And Ethel Clipp, Red Mountain’s ancient and grumpy office manager with the bright purple hair, thinks the world of Maggie but has absolutely nothing nice to say about their rival Babs “The Beast of Birmingham” Bingington, the unscrupulous estate agent who hates Maggie and is determined to put her out of business. 
Maggie has heartbreaking secrets in her past, but through a strange turn of events, she soon discovers, quite by accident, that everybody, it seems—dead or alive—has at least one little secret. 
I Still Dream About You is a wonderful novel that is equal parts Southern charm, murder mystery, and that perfect combination of comedy and old-fashioned wisdom that can be served up only by America’s own remarkable Fannie Flagg.
Let's move on to the discussion:

  • As I expected with the feel good plot line we had 13 likes and 4 so-sos with no dislikes.  I have read Fannie Flagg before, and I really don't know how you could "dislike" her upbeat stories filled with rich and quirky characters.  I was one of the so-sos, but for me, I am always so-so on Flagg.  I love her fun and compelling story lines and I adore her characters but, the far fetched fairy tale endings (which I know are coming before I begin) always leave me a bit disappointed.  Three of the other "so-so" people shared my thoughts.  One said, "I loved the characters but the plot was ridiculous." On the other hand, here are some of the liked comments--the majority opinion:
    • The characters were meaty, like people you would actually know.
    • If the characters walked out of the book, they could be your friend.
    • It was fun.
    • Birmingham came alive to me in this book.
  • Although this question was not provided by the publisher, I felt strongly that I needed to ask it.  I began by pointing out the tonal inconsistency that is the backbone of this book. Maggie's "plan," mentioned above, is to kill herself.  I am not spoiling anything because we learn this very quickly as readers.  So I asked, "This book has a light and fun tone, yet the entire story is predicated on a planned suicide.  How did that make you feel?"
    • One participant said it was fine because Maggie went to such great extremes to plan out every single detail around her suicide that it was comical.  This meant you never thought she would actually do it.
    • We then listed our favorite "funny" things she did each time she planned for and cancelled her suicide attempt.  I will not give them away here because they did add to the enjoyment of the story.  The point you need to know here is that it is comical to an absurd sense.  We agreed that this was handled masterfully by Flagg.  She was able to allow Maggie to come full circle from wanting to kill herself to relishing life without bringing the over tone of the book down.
    • She also did not treat the suicide storyline too frivolously.  SMALL SPOILER ALERT-- We all saw this when Maggie has a dream about going through with it.  We were all as upset as her by the vividness of this scene.  We knew she would not ultimately kill herself because the tone of the story was too happy, but every person in the group was effected by this emotional scene. It made us all question our belief that Maggie would NOT kill herself and that realization left us all breathless. Again, we thought this was a great job by Flagg.  It was her good writing that made us feel such intense emotion.
  • This discussion led us to a larger discussion of Maggie:
    • Maggie began the book as a passive person who only saw the world in black and white, so to her, of course there was on other option than to kill herself.
    • Maggie grew up above a movie theater.  Her plans were like she was planning the ending to the movie that was her life. This led to another lovely side discussion about how her life above the movie theater was described.
    • Maggie was Miss Alabama, but felt like her life did not live up to that title.  She had a problem when life was ordinary.  The ordinary is what she was most afraid of and could not handle. So when life became ordinary without anything to look forward to, that's when she felt ready to kill herself.
    • She seemed so put together to all of those around her, but inside she was a mess.  
    • She was a functional depressed person
    • She kept putting off her suicide because she had things to do, but when she actual dreamed of going through with it, Maggie understood the will to live.
  • We talked about Maggie's decision on Easter Sunday not to kill herself, but rather to live life to its fullest.  We decided it was like a delayed (she's 60) coming of age when Maggie finally stopped expecting her life to be laid out like a perfect movie and instead accepted life for the imperfect, but glorious, thing that it is. So then I asked the group when in the story did mature Maggie start.
    • When she stole the listing for Crestview from the villian Babs. It gave her life purpose and brought her childhood dreams full circle.
    • When she had the dream and decided to live
    • When she was still planning to kill herself and began to realize that if she was going to die, she did not have to go the gym anymore or worry about the news or worry about speaking her mind or even worrying about what people thought.  When she shed all of these things about living she hated, she began to enjoy living again.
    • When Hazel died five years ago, Maggie started planning her death; that is when she ironically began to live again.
  • We talked about the Miss Alabama and Miss America storyline.  This is the key thing about Maggie's life.  As you read we find out she was the leading contender to win Miss America.  This was during a time when the Miss America pageant was watched by almost every American.  However, Maggie's turn coincided with the violence in Birmingham and the glaring spotlight it put on their city.  Alabama and our country were going through a crisis.  Maggie was caught in the middle.  It was emotional to see her go from front runner to being hit with mud pies due to current events, not due to anything she did.  Seeing the time period through Maggie's eyes and through her friend and partner (a black woman now, young girl at time) was interesting and gripping.
  • This prompted one person to say that Maggie, Brenda, and the city of Birmingham were the three main characters to her.  Maggie and Brenda are a given.  But we explored this idea of "The Magic City" as a character.  The more we thought about it, the more we all agreed.  This patron even brought in a section from our local papers which was talking about Birmingham 50 years later.  Reading this book with an eye to Birmingham as a character really made us appreciate Flagg's writing more too.  We talked about instances where the city itself grows and changes as a character would.
    • On a side note, this same patron said that the novel made her realize that she still holds stereotypes against "Southerners," especially in regards to Civil Rights. This book opened her eyes to her own prejudice and made her realize that the city and the people living in it have changed too.  Just as she has changed over time, they have evolved too, and they are not the same people, nor the same town, that knocked people down with firehoses.
  • This idea of Maggie's nostalgia for the old, pre-Civil Rights tainted Birmingham and her acceptance of how it is today led one participant to bring up the title.  Who is still dreaming about whom:
    • Of course we began with Maggie and Brenda's separate dreams for the city.  Maggie dreams to save the charm of the old city and by saving its oldest, grandest house she meets her dream, while Brenda dreams of becoming mayor to fix the city. Maggie's dream is especially reinforced by the cover, which is a view from Crestview ( the house) looking down on a beautiful city.
    •  It could also refer to Maggie and Charles still dreaming about each other after so many years apart
    • Hazel: they all still dream of her and she obviously thought of them from beyond the grave by leaving contingencies in her will to make them all wealthy after her husband passed.
    • It could also refer to Maggie's disappointment in not being the person she dreamed she'd be.
    • Finally, we liked how the book ended with the dream of a young girl as she looked up at Crestview.  It all came full circle, both the story and the title.
  • This book is also about the power of female friendships.  For Maggie and Brenda, a deep and true friendship emerges by the end of the book.  They thought they were friends before, but by the book's end, they come to understand a deeper friendship.  We also see through flashback, the relationship between Hazel and Ethel.  This story is a testament to the wonder and power of female friendships, but done it a way that does not lay it on too thickly.
  • Speaking of friendships, Hazel is a larger than life force in this novel.  She is the dynamo, little person who became a real estate and business mogul.  She believed in Maggie and hired her when her prospects were dim, same for Brenda.  But at the novel's open (2008) she is 5 years dead.  Here's a summary of our Hazel discussion:
    • She was positive, feisty, and a fighter
    • We talked about how Hazel was a bit too good to be true, but she felt real.  Maybe not 1 person, but she felt like an amalgamation of people we all know in life.
    • She was the ray of sunshine in Maggie, Brenda, and Ethel's life.  Her positive attitude kept them going.
    • She saw the beauty in everything and accepted herself, something both Brenda and Maggie struggle with throughout the book.  By the end, though, Brenda and Maggie get there and are happy with themselves and their lives.
    • Hazel is the moral center of the book. We all have limitations, some are more obvious than others, but we all can rise above.  Her moral center place in the book is underscored by Maggie seeing a sign from Hazel in the form of a white lily on Easter Sunday, and this becomes the final straw in Maggie's decision to not kill herself.
    • Hazel was a bit too perfect a character, but Flagg knows this.  That is why we think it is important that Hazel is dead in the present of the book.  It is more effective to have her appear as remembered.  The real Hazel is not there, just the fond memories.  As a literary device this allows the reader to accept a "perfect" Hazel easier. It's all a bit too sweet, but it is okay because the Hazel of the book is not "real."
    • We talked about the mystery surrounding the builder of Crestview that pops up in the middle of the book.  People felt that while it seemed to come out of nowhere, overall the story line added depth to the setting and enhanced the notion of Birmingham as a character in the story.  It also gave Maggie purpose and direction, allowing her to unite her old self and her new self. And, it underscored the theme of the literal and figurative skeletons in everyone's closets. Maggie is not the only one living with a secret.
    • We talked about Maggie and Charles.  When they were younger it seemed Charles really did love and appreciate Maggie for who she was, but Maggie was still living in movie mode.  She wanted to "make it big."  But by the end, both are different people.  She appreciated him more now because she appreciated herself finally.
  • We wrapped it all up with words or phrases to describe the book:
    • entertaining
    • flair
    • quirky
    • characters
    • delightful
    • funny
    • heartwarming
  • On a final note, I think this novel is a great choice for a book group who is getting bogged down by depressing books.  Yes it is a feel good story, but there is enough meat and issues to handle a discussion.  It was a nice pick-me-up for the group.
Readalikes: As one participant mentioned, Adriana Trigiani is a great readalike option for Flagg fans.  Both women write compelling and heartwarming stories that feature some of the best characters in contemporary fiction.  They are also both able to balance the serious and the funny in their stories.

For people who liked the Southern setting, aging main characters, mix of serious and funny story lines, and over all quirky feel should also try the Miss Julia series by Ann B. Ross.

Lorna Landvik also writes stories of women and their friendships again tackling more serious topics but with an overall heartwarming tone. Years ago, back before the blog, our group read Angry House Wives Eating Bon-Bons.

Speaking of previous books, two other books I would suggest that we read are  Rush Home Road by Lori Lansens and The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas. Use the linked titles for full reports.

Finally, during the discussion we talked about how the parts of the story during which Brenda and Maggie talk about not fully understanding what was happening in their town and how it was perceived by the wider world during the Civil Right Movement reminded us of  The Help.  In The Help, Skeeter has to find out from an editor in NYC just what is going on in her home town Jackson, MS. Both are also about unexpected friendships.

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