A Southern tale of transformations, adventures

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 6, 2014

“Miss Julia’s Marvelous Makeover,” by Ann B. Ross. Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 296 pp. $26.95.

A long-lost relative from Georgia. A run for state senate interrupted by a gallbladder surgery. A trailer park coveted for use as a cemetery. All these and more combine for a lively summer of adventure — and transformation — in Ann B. Ross’ novel, “Miss Julia’s Marvelous Makeover.”
The latest addition to Ross’ Miss Julia series, the tale begins with Julia Murdoch’s hopes for a quiet summer at home in the fictional town of Abbotsville, N.C. Having just evaded a vacation abroad with her travel-loving husband, Miss Julia is ready to settle down for the season. It soon becomes apparent, however, that she does not need to go anywhere for an adventure. First, her husband declares his intention to run against the district’s incumbent senator for the N.C. General Assembly. And on the heels of that decision comes an unexpected guest — Trixie, the granddaughter of a distant cousin in Georgia, shipped north for an education in the art of being a Southern lady. The summer that follows proves anything but quiet, and turns Miss Julia’s peaceful world upside down and inside-out.
The action unfolds very much as a Southern conversation does — at a leisurely, thorough, almost meandering pace. Miss Julia serves as narrator, and consequently the narrative bears her Southern mannerisms and tendency to reflect (perhaps a little too extensively at times) on events. This is not a book for those who want a quick, tight read. Indeed, tightness can be somewhat of an issue, as the novel continues to introduce new characters and aspects of setting as the action progresses. But for those who enjoy a slower pace, vast array of characters and episodes, and comical, Southern-style adventure, the book may be ideal.
The story’s North Carolina context makes it relevant for Southern readers. Abbotsville is set in the Asheville area and has a very small-town feel. The story features Southern food and diction, alludes to North Carolina laws, and provides a glimpse into state and local politics. And, of course, there is the traditionally Southern concern for manners. Miss Julia is expected to turn her guest — a sullen young woman with no social skills — into a lady (and hopefully find her a husband while she’s at it). Yet it is a little bit of a modern story, too. Miss Julia, a small-town Southerner of an older generation, must contend with the issues and wonders of modern technology and social developments in the process of making her guest (and herself) over.
In her attempts to handle the summer’s surprises, Miss Julia is sometimes comic, sometimes profound. Yet it is the other characters who add the most color and energy to the experience. Miss Julia’s active and amiable husband, a sweet and stylish neighbor, a spunky trailer park manager, an overenthusiastic mortician and the contemptible sponsor of the local political machine all serve to complement (or contrast) Miss Julia’s character and drive the story forward. Left to herself, she would probably read the summer away.
Readers new to the Miss Julia series may find it difficult to distinguish the relationships between some of these characters. Many complex relationships — such as those between Miss Julia, her adoptive grandson, and the grandson’s mother — are not explained until well into the action, a fact that may create some confusion early on.
Ross has written 14 previous Miss Julia novels, including “Miss Julia Stirs Up Trouble” and “Miss Julia to the Rescue.” She has been a professor of literature at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and currently lives in Hendersonville.
Miss Julia never does get the summer she prepared for, and at the end of it there are still some consequences left to be seen. Yet the results of unexpected events are usually just as unexpected. And it just might be that someone as unadventurous as Miss Julia can look back at the summer and find that she enjoyed the experience after all.
Ann Ross will be one of the authors featured in the Reading Rendezvous, scheduled for April 26 at Rowan Public Library, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.