Posts Tagged ‘Tallahassee’

If revenge is a dish best served cold, Marylou Ahearn has kept hers on ice for so long it has freezer burn. Yikes!

But now at age 77, she has found Dr. Wilson Spriggs, who headed up a 1953 government research project that gave pregnant women a radioactive cocktail without their consent. Marylou believes Spriggs’ “vitamin drink” killed her only daughter Helen as a child. She also believes that she will feel lots better after she kills Spriggs, “Darn tootin’.”

Marylou is both appalling and appealing in Elizabeth Stuckey-French’s prickly dramedy, The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady. Moving from Memphis to Tallahassee in 2006, Marylou changes her name to Nancy Archer in honor of the heroine of the ’50s film, Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, and begins stalking the suburban neighborhood where Spriggs lives with his daughter Caroline Witherspoon, her husband Vic, and their three teens.

To her surprise, the doctor is now a doddering gent with Alzheimer’s. Although “Nance” still plans to kill Spriggs, she realizes that the revenge won’t be as sweet if her victim doesn’t understand what’s coming to him. So she soon ingratiates herself with his family so she can mess up their lives, too.

Not that they really need her help. The Witherspoons are a funny family — funny ha-ha and funny peculiar. Caroline is in the throes of a miserable menopause and burdened by responsibilities on the homefront, while her hurricane-obsessed hubby eyes a co-worker at an educational testing center.  Beautiful elder daughter Ava worships Elvis and thinks he might have had Asperger’s. She has it, as does her brother Otis, who is building a breeder reactor in a backyard shed, scraping radium off old clocks and ordering necessary elements from Amazon.

Only 13-year-old, soccer-playing Suzi is anything close to normal, so Nance naturally cozies up to her first, sensing how alone she feels within a family on the verge of a meltdown.

Stuckey-French, who teaches writing at Florida State, chronicles their spiral in chapters told from the alternating perspectives of Marylou/Nance and the Witherspoons, capturing individual voices with style, wit and generous detail. Sometimes a bit too generous. Caroline and Vic’s issues aren’t as interesting as the others, and the obligatory hurricane scene not nearly as catalytic as Suzi’s encounter with a smarmy preacher, nor Marylou’s misguided meddling. Yes, for every action there is a reaction.

Otis, after falling for a girl, misses her after their relationship abruptly ends. “So this is what it feels like, he realized, to let another person into your world. It felt much more dangerous than any nuclear device he could create, because he had no idea what the possible chain reaction would be.”

Floridians are fond of their reputation as a state of the weird. “Only in Florida,” we think, and Stuckey-French effortlessly nails “humidity and heat and March, which, although breathtakingly lovely, was when spring breakers and serial killers and long-lost relatives descended upon the Sunshine State.” But the idea for her book was generated by real secret experiments carried out at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee in the 1950s. And it is her insight into her quirky characters’ minds and hearts that makes this revenge so universally bittersweet.  Funny, too.

Open Book: I received a galley of  Elizabeth Stuckey-French’s The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady (Doubleday) through an online promotion. It came with laudatory blurbs from four authors I know: Lee Smith, Connie May Fowler, Ron Rash and Robert Olen Butler. I agree with them.

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