I’m a perpetual re-reader of books, seizing up one of my favorites whenever the mood strikes me. This month, I picked up Charms for the Easy Life by Kaye Gibbons. The book was first published in 1993 and I read it for the first time in 1994. It’s the story of the Birch family and its three generations of determined Southern women. On my first read, I most identified with the youngest member of the family, Margaret. She’s the narrator and a smart young woman who is finding her way in the world of 1930s Raleigh, North Carolina. In 1994, I was 25 years old and living in Nashville, Tennessee, sorting out my next move in life. I felt like Margaret and I had a great deal in common.
The novel is sentimental but not cloying, thanks to the humor that runs throughout the story. Re-reading the book this summer, at the age of 48, I found myself identifying less with Margaret and more with her mother and grandmother, two independent women in an age when independent women were something of a rarity. Like Margaret’s mother, Sophia, I’m the mother of an indulged only child. Like Sophia, my life is shifting as my child prepares to head out into the world on his own. Reading the novel found me thinking about the changes I’ve experienced in the last twenty-plus years. I’m as fiercely independent as Charlie Kate, Sophia, and Margaret. In some respects, it’s easier for me to be that way. But though we are more common in the 21st century than the 20th century, we independent women know that there are still plenty of unspoken rules about what we can say and what we can do. There are expectations about how we are supposed to think about our place in society; our accomplishments can still be grudgingly honored or ignored all-together. We're supposed to ignore that. In this way, I expect that the Birch women would find themselves right at home in 2016.
The South is practically a fourth character in the novel. When I first read it, I was living in the South myself and I very much desired to stay there. A job would ultimately take me to the Midwest in 1994. I’ve lived in the Northeast since 2002, but I’ve never lost my affection for the South. The only time in my life I’ve ever been homesick was in 1997, when I spent my last summer in Nashville and reconciled myself to a life lived outside of Dixie, at least for a while. I’ve not yet returned to the South but this reading of Charms for the Easy Life found me homesick for the South and all of its quirky charms.
A familiar book is a companion throughout life, offering comfort and lessons in equal measure. Fittingly, this Kaye Gibbons novel is a charm, if not for an easy life, then at least for a thoughtfully-considered one. I’ll take it.