Reviewed by Donna Meredith
In Rhett’s DeVane’s latest novel, Secondhand Sister, Mary-Esther Sloat may be down on her luck, but that’s about to change when she flees hurricane-ravaged New Orleans for a new life and sanctuary in North Florida. The hospitality of newfound friends and family soon envelops her—and this sixth novel in the beloved Chattahoochee series will wrap you in a warm cocoon, too.
If you enjoy the feel-good fiction of Karen White and Debbie Macomber, you should snuggle up with Secondhand Sister. Other books in DeVane’s series include The Madhatter’s Guide to Chocolate, Up the Devil’s Belly, Mama’s Comfort Food, Cathead Crazy, and The Suicide Supper Club.
Secondhand Sister’s charm involves getting reacquainted with old friends. Like the Davis family—Hattie, her husband Holston Lewis, Bobby, and Leigh. Elvina Houston—good-hearted busybody who knows everything about everybody. Jake—Hattie’s dear friend and the town’s florist who was nearly killed by hateful teens because he is gay. The Fletchers—Evelyn and Joe, chief cook at the Borrowed Thyme Bakery and Eatery.
But it is newcomer Mary-Esther Sloat who stars in what may be the best novel yet in this series. She grabs our sympathy right away: “Loss sucked at her. That last failed marriage, Nana Boudreau, and her mother” Loretta Day—both dead. Her old neighborhood destroyed by Katrina’s floods. And if that weren’t enough, one more shock awaits. Mary Esther learns Loretta wasn’t her biological mother. Though unsettled, Mary-Esther feels an odd sense of relief. Most of her raising fell to Nana Boudreau anyway while Loretta drifted through men and addictions with little thought of providing stability for her daughter.
In the beat-up van that now serves as home, Mary-Esther sets out to discover her true identity. Destination: Quincy, the little town in North Florida named on her birth certificate.
Though the hospital where Mary-Esther was born is long gone, a friendly police sergeant, Jerry Blount, offers unsolicited assistance. At first she eyes Jerry with streetwise suspicion learned from life in New Orleans, but gradually she comes to admire his friendly demeanor and desire to serve the community. From the moment Jerry enters the story, you know Mary-Esther would have to be a complete fool to walk away from his sexy dimples. A kind man, especially one with dimples, is not so easily found.
Since Gadsden County is one of those places where everyone knows everyone else—or if they don’t, they know someone else who is their third cousin twice removed—Jerry sets in motion the chain of connections that lead Mary-Esther to the truth. Mary-Esther discovers that another baby, Sarah Davis, was born in the hospital on the same day listed on her birth certificate. That baby died. Could Mary-Esther (maiden name Day) have been switched at birth with the now-deceased Sarah Davis?
And if this turns out to be true, how will the Davises react to a stranger turning up claiming to be kin? Hattie and Bobby live on the Davis family land. Is this newcomer a con artist looking for an inheritance? If Mary-Esther turns out to be their sister, is there room for another sibling in their lives?
By this point in the story, you’ll care about Mary-Esther and hope she finds happiness.
One reason you’ll like her is her deep affinity for the elderly, a connection she feels in part because they remind her of the person dearest to her, Nana Boudreau, but also because older folks often experience the same emotions that trouble her: “fear, confusion, abandonment.” Unlike many people who ignore or scorn the elderly, Mary-Esther accords them proper dignity. She listens to their stories and understands their needs.
One elderly woman Mary-Esther befriends is LaJune, an assisted-living resident who remembers days long gone better than what she did that morning: “Advanced age had a way of causing some people to flicker like faulty light bulbs. One day, things clicked, memory served, and conversations flowed in a logical line.” The next day: impossible to follow their train of thought. Mary-Esther could have used LaJune to find out what the older woman might know about her birth and then walk away forever. She doesn’t. She visits often. Brings gifts.
Mary-Esther also demonstrates her ability to connect with the elderly when she helps her landlords. While renting their tiny garage apartment, Mary-Esther does laundry and cleaning for Rose and Eustis. She takes care of them when they are unable to take care of themselves with no expectation of recompense.
One of DeVane’s hallmarks as a writer is the use of unusual metaphors. Like this description of summer: “when it’s so hot and humid you could melt your shoe soles on the sidewalks.” Or when Mary-Esther hugs her frail landlord Rose, she thinks the elderly woman felt “as if her bones were turning to spun sugar.” And when Mary-Esther returns to view her ruined New Orleans home, “the overhead plaster drooped like soiled diapers.”
Another trademark is feel-good truths about small-town life. Jerry tells Mary-Esther, “There’s a story behind everything in this part of the South. If not, we invent one.” He also offers this bit of wisdom: “Everyone needs a hand, at one time or the other. This is your time.” Elvina offers up homilies like “friends were God’s way for making up for family,” and “[n]o matter if it’s your work people, your blood relatives, or your good friends you’ve made into family. Family is everything.” And LaJune shares this life lesson: “You only have right now. The past—all those memories of fun and love and hardship—makes you what you are. But you can’t go back and crawl into your old skin. It won’t fit.”
And it wouldn’t be a DeVane book, without gobs of food, especially chocolate. Just reading the culinary descriptions might be enough to evoke a diabetic coma. Besides piling every traditional dish imaginable on the table, the Thanksgiving feast at the Davis home on the Hill boasts at least a dozen desserts.
A few special recipes, like “Mary-Esther’s Boo-Coo Bananas” and “Hattie’s Easiest and Best Spinach Salad,” wrap up this tasty read. So grab yourself a copy, and burrow into a secluded, cozy corner of your home and dig in.