Hometown by Michele Feltman Strider

Michele Feltman Strider contacted me on Twitter to recommend Hometown, a 2012 self-published book that is part of the Southern Trilogy, for my Reading Fat Women goal. I was told I did not have to read the whole trilogy for Hometown to make sense, and that is true. I am going to say right away that I think the synopsis, in the first sentence, is both misleading and cruel to the main character. At no point in the novel is she described as “plump, unattractive, and underachieving.” She’s a fat woman who is the product of her setting, and I can’t think of a time when she was described in an ugly way. In fact, I almost didn’t read this book thanks to that one sentence. Fat people aren’t automatically unattractive.

hometown
This looks Midwestern to me. What does Alabama look like?

Set in Alabama starting circa 1999, Sharon Hunters is married to Gary, a drug-dealing loser whose family runs most of the town, including the court system. Sharon doesn’t know what to do with her life because her society hasn’t taught her how to be an adult, so she got married right after high school. After getting a job at a grocery store bakery, Sharon feels some confidence and finds herself attracted to the kind co-worker Alan. Through a series of questionable choices, Sharon divorces Gary, marries Alan, and moves to New Orleans to open Alan’s dream restaurant, all with a baby in tow.

Choices I may find ridiculous make sense in Sharon’s world. She narrates this novel in which she follows the path that she sees others treading. After describing her life with husband Gary, Sharon points out, “If it wasn’t the life I dreamed of, it was pretty much what I’d always expected.” You can see that she doesn’t know how to reach her potential, or what potential even means. Early on, readers learn that her baby isn’t new husband Alan’s. Instead, she got pregnant by Gary during one last hook-up and resorted to quickly marrying Alan to keep her pregnancy safe from her drug-dealing ex. Sharon’s friend tells her not to forget she owes Alan another baby so he has one biologically related to him, whether he knows it or not. Also, Sharon makes comments about not knowing anyone who’s ever retired, and thinks a good way to start a family is flush a birth control pill here and there to have a nice “surprise.” These decisions, while awful, are all evidence of her hometown’s mentality.

Throughout the novel, Sharon’s weight is addressed realistically. When someone is mad at her, the first go-to insult is “fat bitch,” which we’ve all heard/read/seen on TV. Occasionally, Sharon thinks about losing weight, but is not dedicated to the idea. She’s almost too apathetic about the subject, such as when she notices how many breakfast cereals promote weight loss but are twice the cost of her regular cereal. I noted dozens of mentions of size and fat: how small a seat is, how Sharon almost touches someone she’s sitting next to, how she’s embarrassed when her stomach growls, how thin coworkers leave heavy-lifting jobs to her. These are all little indicators of her size that don’t say something inherently negative about the character.

I really enjoyed the plot, watching Sharon grow and develop, slowly acclimating to things “fancier” than her hometown. I could relate when Sharon felt unsophisticated. She learns about wines on a dinner date — and to be honest, I’m as clueless as she is:

“It’s wine, but lighter and sweeter than the Cab.”

“Like Boone’s Farm?” I didn’t know a single soul who hadn’t vomited bright rainbows of the stuff at some point in high school.

“Not really. This is made from grapes.”

“Is Strawberry Hill made from strawberries?”

“No, it’s made from the distilled sweat of drunk sorority girls. This is better. I promise.”

Because Sharon comes from a backward-thinking town that perpetuates its own misery, there are some challenging moments in the text: homophobia, sexism, racism, and xenophobia all make an appearance. In some scenes, Sharon is the guilty party, but as she grows she accepts — without a big proclamation — who people are, even if they’re different from her. Here’s a more mild example, one without cursing or slurs, said by Sharon’s first husband:

“You’re my wife, so everything you own, I own. You know why? Cause I own you. The bible says so and this is America, so that’s the law.”

My eyes rolled so hard at how dumb this guy is, but that’s the point: he’s ignorant. And so is Sharon. When they got married, Sharon was 19 and Gary was 22. At one point, a police officer asks Sharon if she’s discussed her problems with an adult, and she points out she’s married. But she does develop as a character.

One problem that stood out to me was Sharon’s narration didn’t match her dialogue. Since the novel is in first-person POV, it should all sound like Sharon. Verbally, Sharon says things like “nekkid girl” and “Filipino tubes” and “It ain’t all that great, Jolene. In fact, it pretty much flat sucks most of the time.” But in her head, she’s using these kinds of words: guile, surreptitiously, astringent, eponymous, cachet, aspersions.

If you can get through the realistic “isms” and phobias and ignore the disparity in vocabulary, you’ll see Hometown is a rewarding novel full of interesting characters. I enjoyed getting into Sharon’s head and growing with her, and I was always happy to be reading or getting back to the novel.

*After I finished the book, I learned that Michele Feltman Strider published a series of  13 stories around 70 pages each that star Jolene, Sharon’s best friend. Just a few days ago, that series was published in book-length form and is titled Homestyle. I think I’m going to have to check it out!

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28 comments

  1. It does sound like a solid piece of character development. And just from what you’ve shared here, it also sounds like an interesting look at the small-town society in which Sharon grows up. I’m glad you said that about the interior dialogue and the actual dialogue. I have to think about that, too, as I write, so they are consistent.

    • It took me years to really, and I mean REALLY, wrap my head around POV. We are able to rattle off the definitions of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, but how the POV affects the story, and why we choose to write in a certain POV, makes all the difference.

  2. Maybe not something I would personally choose to read, but I do appreciate an author working hard to have her characters grow throughout the novel. The iffy dialogue though could be a deal breaker, if the external dialogue doesn’t match the internalizations of the main character.

    • I’m assuming that Feltman Strider is highly educated and thus her own way of speaking slipped into the narration. However, it’s something she could easily fix in future projects. Also, because the books are self-published she could even go back and adjust if she wanted to. I’m not sure I would encourage a writer to keep going back to fix old works, though. It can turn into a nightmare. What kinds of books do you like to read?

      • Indeed, that’s the bonus of self-publishing. You can do suggestive edits and rerelease again. Obviously she’s just starting out in her career and can benefit from people giving constructive feedback.
        As to what I read? A little bit of everything now, though there was a time (in my 20-30s) I read only SF. Now I’m drawn to Crime Fiction as it’s an untouched area for me. But will pretty much read anything with print.

  3. See, again, that’s why I think authors should use third person unless they’re really skilled at first and are writing from the point of view of a literate, educated character. I don’t want to read an entire book in that kind of dialect, but equally I couldn’t believe in a character who thinks in vocabulary she doesn’t speak in…

    • That’s true. I tried writing a story that went full hillbilly because it was in first person, and it was awful. Then I changed it to third and everything smoothed out. I wrote about it in one of my #AmWriting posts. I believe I called it un-hillbilly-ing. 😂

    • Definitely! The character mentioned losing weight for her wedding, but other than that, it wasn’t a thing. She was just herself, but references to her size didn’t get lost either, and I really loved hat.

  4. oh gosh that POV does sound like a real challenge. And I would find it so frustrating to read about those ignorant characters because I know people like that exist in real life! And they elected Trump! Ughhhhhh

    • Interestingly, the novel takes place just before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. Because the narrator is so focused on her family, and possibly because she isn’t well-educated, her focus is on locating missing family members, not the politics. Also, because this is pre-Trump, I blissfully did not think about that “situation.”

  5. This sounds interesting! I like the idea of a character who can grow naturally throughout the story, as well as the idea that the character can make questionable choices, but they become understandable from her background. I think very often that is what literature does–it makes us realize there is a story behind why people are the way they are or why they do the things they do.

    • I’m steeped in academia, but I also know the kinds of communities from which Sharon comes, so I recognized her original person, but was happy to see her change. Thank you so much for stopping by, Krysta 😊

  6. Sometimes blurbs can be really frustrating. I can see the issue you had with the change in voice, especially if it was present tense. If it was past, you could at least pretend it’s an older, more mature version of the character recalling these events.

    • That’s a good point that I hadn’t thought of. I looked back and the book is in first-person past tense, but the way it reads, it’s like it’s happening right now, so I don’t get the sense that the narrator is a distant older version of herself.

  7. This sounds really interesting. A silly little thing, but I like the detail that Sharon’s coworkers leave the heavy lifting to her. Even when I was a) thinner and b) much more insecure about my weight, that was always something I appreciated about my size. If we had a really difficult family on the ward, e.g. with a dad or other relative who was liable to get violent, they were always allocated to me, because in addition to being fat I’m also tall. Angry relatives were much less likely to get lairy with me than with a small, slight nurse. I was always grateful for my big sturdy body in those instances! I’d be curious to know if Sharon was grateful for that too, or if it bugged her – I could see it going either way.

  8. I have always found it an important part of your reviews that they reflect your professional knowledge as a teacher of writing. Like some of the others I find blurbs distracting rather than helpful. Once I’ve chosen a book I tend to forget both the blurb and any review or introduction. As you say it is always difficult to read a book totally in dialect and I think that there needs to be some compromise between first person speech and thought. I wish I were more up to date with my commenting, I am missing the flow of comments through my inbox, and your readers generate so many!

    • You should be able to get my comments only if you use the WordPress app or website. You don’t have to subscribe to all comments. Also, thank you for your kind words. I enjoy your presence here at GTL!

  9. What an interesting sounding book. And that doesn’t not look like Alabama to me – I’ve been there once, OK, but it was more leafy and green than I’d expected. I’d actually read this, as I’m a sucker for a small town novel and a coming-of-age story, even if the heroine comes of age later than her teenage years.

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