I love book group. Not only do I get to hang out with a bunch of people I like and talk about books, I get to read books that I never would have picked up on my own. Welcome to Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady. I read a lot of memoirs, but this one never would have stood out for me. I didn’t know anything about Florence King, so when this was chosen for our September meeting, I was looking forward to something new. (Yes, September book group. If you’re also behind on book reviews, let’s hold hands in solidarity. Or just nod at each other while working on something else that’s not a book review.)
King grew up in an amazing family. If someone pitched these people for a movie or a sitcom, they’d be thrown out of the room. Her grandmother is Southern and proud. She lives for the South. She worships all things Ladylike and Proper. She is happiest when grooming young girls to step in to the roles of Southern Ladies, knowing their impeccable breeding and poise will bring honor to the family. The only thing that will make her happier is if her Southern Lady In Training has women’s problems that incapacitate her. Cramps so bad that you miss the ambulance that’s there to take you to the insane asylum? Oh bless, child. You’re perfect.
King’s mother didn’t stand a chance, or so you’d think. Turns out Granny lost the Lady Lottery when Louise was born. King’s mother had no interest in being a lady and spent her time smoking, boxing, drinking and fighting. The more Granny tried to shove her into dresses, the more badass Mama became. It’s amazing.
King’s father somehow fell into this family and remained a dignified gentleman. An Englishman with a lovely accent who rendered Granny helpless with glee. She would trace his lineage to kings to impress her Southern friends. Of course these lines weren’t accurate, but who cares? He’s English! Herb and Mama married, moved in together, she got pregnant, had nothing in common, and once Granny moved in, it was perfect. This is a relationship that made no sense, and yet it did. Granny is worried and ecstatic that Mama might finally have women troubles when she’s pregnant and moves in for just a little while, never to leave. She and Herb get along so well that people think she’s his mother, not his in-law.
Along comes Florence, and the family is complete.
King is an incredible mix of crazy from all of this. Her father loved learning and education and she learned and read with him constantly. Other children were useless to her and when she started school she was quickly moved up to higher grades because she knew so much more than the unformed blobs that were in her way.
Granny was worried that this was going to lead her to spinsterhood, but Mama swore and told her it was fine.
And that’s pretty much how King’s life was. She’d do her thing, her father supported her, her mother was sometimes indifferent but would fight for her if needed and her grandmother adored and tried to lady-ify her.
I don’t know how she didn’t wind up in the insane asylum. Sometimes the power of love really does conquer all.
I enjoyed the final third of the book the most, when King leaves home to go to college. She arrives at school at a time when women are there to catch husbands and earn their Mrs. before a BA and absolutely before an MA. King is having none of it. She’s there to learn and work. She is destroyed when her female professors insist on being called Mrs. and not Professor. She finds out she can’t major in French. For the first time in her life, she finds herself restricted because of her gender. Sure, there’s been times when she’s had to be stubborn, but this is an entire institution determining her self-worth. It was frustrating and agonizing to read.
She pushes through, takes up with a married professor after realizing she can’t get laid because boys her age are too uptight and finishes her degree. She winds up in the deep South to get her grad work done. There, she meets and falls hopelessly in love with Bres. Bres is a known lesbian and suddenly King realizes she’s one herself. King is a big fan of sex and loved the boys who put out, and willingly lets Bres overwhelm her. Why take up with boys when it’s really a girl you want? Sadly, Bres is not a fantastic girlfriend and the relationship is painful and one sided. Still, it lets King become who she is.
She returns to Granny at the end of the book. It’s no surprise that Granny’s life is coming to an end. While there isn’t a lot of foreshadowing, when a book starts before King is born and spends so much time on Granny’s life, it’s easy for the reader to know that Granny probably isn’t going to make it to the end. King loves her family completely, and returning to them as a young adult was beautiful and heartbreaking. It was one of those moments where I was able to relate completely to someone I had so very little in common with.
This was a fun read. I enjoy reading about Southern life because it’s so at odds with my Yankee self. Granny was a study in what it means to be a Lady, and it’s always hysterical and sweet to see how strength and Southern manners play out together. King’s mother is incredible and reminded me of Idgie Threadgoode from Fried Green Tomatoes and I was so happy when she was on the page. King’s father was unconditional love and delighted in his daughter, even though it meant living and loving a wife and mother-in-law that were completely alien to him. This story could have been heartbreaking and violent and a cautionary tale about choosing your husband carefully, but it wasn’t, and it’s wonderful and lovely.