SYNOPSIS: Coconut cake, grits, poisoned turtle stew and bird-watching . . . the ladies of tiny Tea-Olive, Georgia, share a lot of interests, including murder.Retired judge L. Hyson Breed, a Yankee, picked the wrong Southern woman to trick, bully and steal from. The members of the Tea-Olive Bird Watching Society plot revenge after the judge’s marriage to their friend, Sweet, turns out to be a greedy grab for her land and for control of their town. To the rescue: Beulah, Zion and Wildwood (all named after hymns, as is Sweet). The only problem? The wannabe murderers are southern matrons from a more civilized generation. How does one remain polite even while planning to kill a man and get away with it?
Review by Carol Kean June 30, 2012
We know from the cover blurb that two ladies plot the murder of their friend’s abusive husband. We don’t know if they’ll succeed, and that’s what kept me turning pages to the end. Lots of humor, horror and heart-wrenching good intentions here. The law-abiding citizen in me wishes the ladies would find legal ways to get their friend out of her unfortunate marriage, but the realist in me knows that abused wives all too often feel escape is impossible. It staggers the imagination–we can’t imagine an intelligent woman allowing herself to be owned and controlled by her husband, but it does happen, and libraries are full of psychology books explaining the how and why and what to do to break the cycle of abuse. All too often, it seems death is the only thing that will stop an abuser, but how does an ordinary citizen, “my word against his,” gather evidence to get a man arrested, tried and sentenced? It’s a good thing capital punishment is administered only by the courts, or too many people would be killed by spouses, family members and neighbors. Then again, when evil men know how to elude the legal system, vigilante justice is the only way to stop them. But…. can two church-going, respectable, small town ladies get away with murder? Can they even accomplish murder in the first place?
Some of the situations in this novel struck me as contrived or cliche – e.g., the obvious awfulness of a man who’d cut funds to libraries and children – what a villain! Crucify him! Kill him! Somehow, this aspect of the plot left me wanting to drop the rating to two stars. Then again, such men do exist in real life. They’re the kind who see a turtle crossing the road and swerve, not to avoid hitting it, but to crush it. (Just saw this in today’s news.) So the judge who kills a bird in front of a bird-watcher is all too believable. Most animal lovers would feel driven to murder such a man on the spot. Wanting to kill is one thing, but actually plotting to kill is a an act of human will that would make this novel a great choice for book club discussions. It sounds awful for two elderly women to judge and condemn a man without fair trial and a jury. If they could get away with this in real life, it’s horrifying to imagine how many people might end up dead at the hands of judgmental neighbors. BUT – the way this novel is written, we share their outrage and see the urgency of stopping this man. I kept turning pages. Yes, the pace is slow, if you were expecting a thriller. This novel is more character driven, which to me can only be a good thing. The gradual build-up of evidence against the judge is logical. The flat tire on Sweet’s car, the caged bird, the bull, the red robe – so many images are memorable and evocative, it hardly matters if other scenes seem a little contrived (such as Tobia giving a speech about the benefits of the after-school library program).
I like this book so much, I bought a paper copy for my cousin in Arizona. I’m curious to see how she’ll react. Raised in the Midwest, widowed at last from her own abusive husband, living like a recluse now in the desert, how will she like the Tea-Olive bird watchers? She’ll either hate the book or love it. I’m as eager to learn her response to this novel as I was to reach the end of the novel.
P.S. She didn’t love it as much as I did, but she hated the most beloved novel of my childhood, “Good Morning, Young Lady,” by Ardyth Kennelly. There is no accounting for taste.