There’s something about a book set in the South. The lazy, elegant atmosphere. The juxtaposition of strict social regulations with hysterical and rebellious tendencies. High expectations and major disappointments. Thus is The School of Beauty and Charm, the new novel by Melanie Sumner, a coming-of-age tale that bears the marks of the Southern childishness of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and the heartbreak and insanity of Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone.
This is the story of Louise Peppers, daughter of high-strung Florida and staid Henry, Georgians who are white on the outside and “also on the inside.” The story, set in modern times, could easily have taken place fifty years ago as well. Certain old-fashioned and Southern elements give the tale an antique feel, likethe hyper-concern for what the neighbors might think, the overly healthy dose of blatant racism, and the belief that one can find salvation in either Jesus Christ or a nice permanent wave.
Louise also indulges us with delicate Southern attitudes that make The School of Beauty and Charm so delightful. When talking about the Catholic church next door to her Baptist church, Louise says, “Those windows pour their heathen colors through our pale glass. Louise, when describing family life, tells us how, come election time, her mother is “always careful not to cancel [her father’s] vote by voting for a different candidate.”
The sad thing about The School of Beauty and Charm is that Louise, our narrator, lacks the character and spark that either Scout or Dolores, the protagonists from Lee’s and Lamb’s books have. Most of the life of the book comes from either the Southern sensibilities or Louise’s mother, Florida. Unhappily, we do not see that much into Florida to find out, but enough to pique our curiosity. One can’t discern whether Florida wishes she could live the simple life of a Southern matron, or if she could shed her family and propriety and pursue her dreams. She laments, often accurately, that her family does not appreciate her. She is keen, such as when Louise starts having sex: “I no longer sent underwear to the laundry room, which told Florida that I had either stopped wearing it or was in something too fancy to be seen.” And, sometimes she is stunning: “In her Jacqueline Kennedy sunglasses and stretch pants, with a red scarf knotted under her chin, she looked just like a divorcee.” She is the perfect companion to Henry, the stolid patriarch of the family, who can either fix you with his “long blue stare” or play the role of loving Atticus Finch.
We want to love Louise because she’s got spark and because she grows up in such a fertile environment, but she lets us down, not only through her dumb decisions, but as well as by her weakness of character. We want her to measure up to her mother in attitude and charisma, yet instead she rebels, but disappointingly so. We want her to kick at her trappings and to break out of her shell, but instead she becomes an alcoholic and joins the circus. Certainly this is a fate that would be fascinating for any other character, but for Louise, who has such a bright beginning, it is merely an escape. The reader invests much joy and pain reading about how Louise grows up, and when she finally does, it’s frustrating to see her throw her potential away, not only as a person but as a character. When she joins the circus in Myrtle Beach and beds a sword swallower, the reader wonders where the precocious and thoughtful child we had been reading about previous is. She seems like she could do something better for herself than let her surroundings upstage her.
As a child, Louise is sharp and keen, picking up on things like her brother Roderick reaching puberty: “He was at the rebellious stage: He’d begun to lock his bedroom door, blow-dry his hair, and snicker on the telephone.” Louise notices extraordinary details in the world around her, but also has her mind on the larger world as well, such as her concern for being saved by God, or with her imagined love affair with her English teacher who she silently refers to as “My Darling Mr. Rutherford.” As a teenager, she makes poignant observations like “If you were beautiful, you didn’t need to be nice to people. If you were really gorgeous, you didn’t even have to be clean.” She quotes Lao Tzu to drive her mother insane and begins her college application essay with “I’m a tough broad living on the dock.”
Sumner’s language is both plain and beautiful, and occasionally she can turn a phrase to take your breath away: she describes a bell toll as “heavy with doom, like the crow of the rooster on cold back mornings.” With phrases like this, she can paint a startling picture. She portrays a Georgia that is often at odds with the modern times and its antebellum traditions and flavors. She even amazingly translates a fey hairdresser well onto the page: “‘She’ll love it, and you will too, Mom. Come, come, let’s play!” But Sumner’s biggest problem is that she picks up a topic and then fails to expound, including Louise’s relationship with God, her best friend Drew, the mysterious Regina Bloodworth, and Jeremiah, the black man who works at her father’s plant. The largest letdown however is Louise, in whom she invests so much symbolism and care, but who slips away from the reader, almost as a child does from her parents. In the end we truly empathize and pity the exasperated Florida, and wish we had seen more of her as well.