A Red, Red Rose, by Susan Coryell, L & L Dreamspell (London, TX), 2012, 210 pages and The Ballad of the Sad Café, by Carson McCullers (1941).
By Peter H. Green
A Red, Red Rose, a suspenseful young adult romance and a good ghost story, revolves around the summer 20-year-old Ashby Overton spends with her uncle Hunter Overton, his wife, Monica, her seven-year-old cousin Jefferson, the faithful, attentive retainer Miss Emma, and the handsome stable boy and main caretaker Luke, with whom she is to fall in love, on the family estate, Overhome, in a rambling 18th-century colonial mansion nestled in the mountains of Virginia. Ashby, daughter of one of three sons of the family patriarch and raised by the other surviving son and his wife, is an aspiring writer seeking adventure, the family’s guarded history and more knowledge about her deceased parents’ untimely death.
As she studies family diaries she finds in the ancient attic, she begins to wonder whose version of past events—Luke’s, her aunt and uncle’s, or Miss Emma’s—she can trust. Although she is a competent and constantly improving horsewoman, a series of riding accidents befall her, as they did her grandmother, who died in just such a mishap. She realizes something is amiss and does some sleuthing on her own to piece together Overhome’s horrible secret.
A beautifully crafted story redolent of the languorous atmosphere and brooding evil of the old South, the thickening plot brings Ashby, a very contemporary girl with a cell phone and Internet access, into intimate contact with her staid and tradition-bound ancestors and eventually aligns her in their common cause, unsatisfied claims and despair over unpunished wrongs. The fast-paced tale weaves contemporary characters, southern charm and Gothic mystery into the historic setting all the way to its violent, shocking and yet fitting end.
Coincidentally, I recently read “The Ballad of the Sad Café,” a classic 1941 short story by another southern writer, Carson McCullers (1917-1967), set in a dull West Virginia mill town. This tale depicts a tragic love triangle among Miss Amelia, who runs the local general store, her criminal one-time husband of six days and a homeless hunchback whom she takes in and whose love stimulates her to open a café that awakens the social instincts of the dead-end town. The semi-autobiographical, bisexual nature of this three-way relationship is only hinted at in the story, but the violence that results is described in graphic detail. Comments McCullers as narrator, “First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons —but…that does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved… Often the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored up love which has lain quiet within the lover for a long time… The most outlandish people can be a stimulus for love…The lover craves any possible relationship with the beloved, even if it causes him only pain.”
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare this relatively new novelist with one of our finest Southern writers, admired by both Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. But the contrast of Coryell’s work with Carson McCullers’s short story points up how the character of Ashby’s Aunt Monica, who has been deceived by her evil-intentioned husband, might have been developed in more depth. While it might be said that such complexity does not belong in young adult genre fiction, it is nevertheless a missed opportunity. The chance to explore Monica’s misplaced trust, unrequited love and a broken heart, to offset Ashby’s romantic fulfillment, while painting a less rosy picture for readers, might have served to enhance its Gothic sense, add tragic poignancy and provide needed balance to an otherwise solid story. Nonetheless, this novel is well worth reading for its romance, mystery, and convincing evocation of the past to influence of characters of today. And since the author hints at the continuation of the series in a trilogy, maybe we’ll learn more about this intriguing family in the future.
Till next time, as John Ciardi used to say on the radio, good words to you,