Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl
About a decade ago a television series began its run: Gossip Girl. It was a teen drama based on a novel series by Cecily von Ziegesar. Fictional lives, then, of a batch of adolescents, queen bees in their gossipy chess games. It takes little imagination to add, say, fifty gossipy years to these adolescents and relocate them to North Carolina: Gossip Girl redux and/or senecta.
Miss Julia Inherits a Mess is the eighteenth in Ann B. Ross’s Miss Julia novels—unless I’ve miscounted. It’s the only novel of Miss Ross’s series that I’ve read, which does place this review at a disadvantage largely because of the phone book list of characters who appear and reappear in this series.
It’s light fiction, a quick read, and a bit quirky, entertaining in a Golden Girls television series sort of way. Miss Julia does have a history which is background to be found in the previous novels. She was previously married but then widowed. Details emerge suggesting the first marriage was sterile. When that husband—Wesley Lloyd Springer—dies, it’s as if Miss Julia’s life begins as she never could have imagined. Thus novel-by-novel Miss Julia is slowly transformed by those quirky if not comic circumstances which come along and interrupt her otherwise placid southern life.
One would imagine, then, that through this series of novels Miss Julia is a consistent character addressing life’s changes. The phone rings and Miss Julia answers. It’s LuAnn Conover breathlessly announcing the news that’s spreading all over town. Mattie Freeman has fallen and broken her hip. The postman found her and called for help. She’s in the hospital and in surgery.
What’s the sisterhood to do?
Well, Miss Julia notes, the problem is compounded because “Mattie Freeman could be downright disagreeable—abrupt and outspoken—with little thought of the feelings for others.”
This episodic first chapter introduces the novel’s complication, Mattie’s broken hip and an uneasy situation, but when Miss Julia sits down on the leather Chippendale sofa in her library to think about Mattie, the reader learns a bit of gossipy news. Miss Julia recalls the day when “Binkie,” her curly-headed lawyer, called Julia to come to the law office. This reflection is time-past episode a few weeks after Wesley Lloyd’s passing, now years ago.
Binkie shows Julia a “frayed, much-used ledger.” Wesley Lloyd had been the owner of an independent bank; following his well-timed death, Miss Julia “sold out as soon as [she] profitably could,” leaving her financially well-fixed. Binkie notes, however, that Wesley Lloyd had also been operating an off-the-books loan operation at loan shark exorbitant rates.
As Miss Julia recalls the list of names in the ledger, which includes Wesley Lloyd’s paramour, Hazel Marie Puckett, with whom he fathered a son, Miss Julia sees Mattie Freeman’s name.
When the phone rings again in the second chapter, it’s Mildred Allen on the phone; Mildred lives in the largest house in town. The topic again is Mattie and how her tea parties have gotten smaller.
The novel is not a television series, but if it were it would revolve around the fictional lives of senior-aged women living in Abbotsville, North Carolina, queen bees whose phone gossip is, oh, tenacious but charming. There’s a social sphere in Abbotsville dependent on wealth but also on rumors, and, of course, lunch, unless one of the overweight characters who needs to lose weight is contemplating a stomach-stapling operation.
The complication develops when Mattie Freeman survives her hip surgery but because of other complications succumbs.
Miss Julia is in conversation with her house-keeper, Lillian, about how Miss Julia is turning over a new leaf, allocating the time she spends worrying to something more “constructive and fulfilling.” The phone rings and it’s Ernest Sitton, Attorney at Law.
Miss Julia can’t believe “what the Lord has burdened” her with now.
Mattie Freeman has left a last will and testament and Miss Julia is the executrix, the person ordered by the court to administer the estate of the deceased and who must ensure that the deceased’s desires expressed in the will are carried out. Thus the “inherited mess” complication in Miss Julia’s life as she hesitantly gathers up and protects the assets of Mattie’s estate from a variety of ne’er-do-wells, including self-important preachers.
On scale the fifty episodic fast-paced chapters in the novel make for easy reading; Miss Julia is a charming eccentric whose usual point of view is that of a proper Presbyterian. Since there are seventeen other novels in the series, this one is standard comedic fare with antics and shenanigans. Likely the next Miss Julia will be out in 2017, since the series seems to be an annual publication.
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