Mrs. Earl Poole Jr., better known as Sookie, is almost 60 and still can’t get out from under her overpowering, and mentally unstable mother, Lenore Simmons Krackenberry. Lenore’s rich Simmons background and standing in the community is in a league of its own, and not one that Sookie ever felt comfortable in. But apparently, much of her family history was fiction. When Sookie finds out the truth as it applies to her in particular, it puts her into a tailspin, and takes her back to events in American history she never knew existed in a journey of discovery both of her own life and her heritage. This is Fanny Flagg’s “The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion.”
There are far few too authors out there that can make their readers laugh and cry at the same time. It is even rarer that the author can do this with just the right amount of wit and charm that grabs the reader’s attention from the first lines and pulls them in with characters that come alive, right off of the page. Fanny Flagg is certainly one of these exceptional authors, and with this new novel, she’s brought us that same amazing combination that we recall from “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café”. Here she brings in some of the characters she introduced to us in “Welcome to the World, Baby Girl” but this time instead of the ambitious television personality, Dena Nordstrom, we investigate one of Dena’s college friends, the quiet housewife, Mrs. Earl Poole Jr., better known as Sookie.
Those familiar with Flagg’s work will know that “Welcome” was the first in her ‘Elmwood Springs’ novels. But this story takes place in two other locations – Point Clear Alabama in the 21st century, and Pulaski, Wisconsin in the middle of the 20th century. The story here is built across these different eras, by giving us few chapters in each of the different timeframes. At the same time, the story moves towards a definite meeting point, which is better left unsaid to avoid spoilers, despite us finding out about it quite early in the present-day story. And then, just when we’ve thought that the two tales have finally come together, Flagg gives us some extra twists. Yes, I did say “twists” in the plural, which would usually make me cringe in thinking that it was all just a bit much. But Flagg knows how to do it just so, and it ends up fully mirroring real-life.
One of the main elements that make this book so lovely is how Flagg builds her characters. I know I’ve used the term “wit and charm” before but this fits just as well here. Truly the place where Flagg casts her spell over her readers is by making all of her stories so perfectly character-driven. Flagg’s people just seem so alive and lively, even when they’re feeling down and sad or upset, that they’re almost touchable. And just when you think that the cleverness of the plot might edge them out, you’re drawn back to them with something odd or quirky that they do or say, and you suddenly realize you’d just adore the chance to give them hug and/or a good talking to!
One thing that might bother some readers is how Flagg continues on with these characters for what seems to be quite a long time after the big climax. I personally have come to dislike most novels that tie things up a bit too nicely at the end. This is partially because most authors who do this seem to pack in far too much information and time into those final concluding bits. Not so, with Flagg. Instead, she uses this epilogue time to heap on extra passages that point up both the humor and poignancy that make up these people and their lives. Yes, there were a couple of pieces of that final puzzle that might have been left out, but those were only a few lines here and there among the last 30 or so pages. With that being such a little bit of extraneous prose, I can’t say it detracted much from the whole novel.
In short, I cannot describe this book without the word “delightful” coming to mind, even for the parts when things don’t go well with the characters or the story. With the way that Flagg writes, and despite a tiny slow spot in the early part of the present-day story, the moment the big secret comes out you’ll be reading this full-speed ahead and not want to stop until you’ve found out everything. With something this much fun, where I even enjoyed the bits that made me cry, I can’t give it less than a full five out of five stars, and highly recommend it.
“The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion” by Fanny Flagg was published by Random House UK, Vintage Publishing and released on March 13, 2014. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy of this book via NetGalley.