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.
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!