by Louise Shaffer
Random House, 2003
Book Review by Gusty Russel Scattergood
My inclination on discovering a character named Miss Li’l Bit on page 1 of a novel is to get as far from that story as quickly as possible. Fortunately for me, I didn’t follow those instincts with The Three Miss Margarets.
Yes, there is a character named Miss Li’l Bit, and yes, the book is set in the town of Charles Valley, Georgia, where of course the requisite stereotypical Southerners reside. But Miss Li’l Bit turns out to be not one iota like her name. She’s a large woman, the “homely-as-a-mud-fence daughter of a local lunatic who couldn’t get herself a man if her life depended on it,” and she’s now become the town icon. The other two Miss Margarets, her friends Peggy and Dr. Maggie, have shared both the safe haven of her front porch and a terrible dark secret for most of their lives.
In Louise Shaffer’s debut novel, which is part family saga and part good old-fashioned mystery, the Margarets’ deep friendship is put to the test.
A crime was committed over thirty years ago, and the three Miss Margarets took a vow of secrecy to protect those involved. Now a New York City writer comes to Charles Valley, seeking information which could lead to the truth about the night the murder took place. And local resident Laurel Selene, who has her own ax to grind with her hometown, invites him home and helps him dig through the clandestine pasts of assorted pillars of the community.
The Miss Margarets’ secret is complicated, tragic, and about to be revealed. When the person closest to the crime comes home to die, the three friends are thrown into a moral dilemma of their own making. As their story unravels, they are forced to confront the racism, loyalty, and the romantic liaisons which surround their long-held secret.
Each Miss Margaret has a story to tell. After a love affair in Atlanta went sour, Dr. Maggie came home to stay, with her medical degree and an enthusiasm for helping all the citizens of Charles Valley. Peggy married well, drinks too much, and finds she appreciates the stray dogs she takes in more than some of her human acquaintances. Miss L’il Bit sits on her front porch drinking bad coffee, trying to convince the others they’ve done the right thing.
Actress-turned-author Louise Shaffer’s folksy style may not appeal to everyone (who but a true Southerner would detail baking a Red Velvet Cake in her novel), but The Three Miss Margarets should be read for the mystery, for the characters, and because once you read that first sentence (“She’d gone to bed with her shoes on, and not by accident.”), the book is just too good to put down.
A perfect summer read, The Three Miss Margarets is light enough to pack for the beach and complicated enough to keep readers interested.
Augusta Russel Scattergood grew up in the Mississippi Delta, but now makes her home way off in the East. Nevertheless, Southern roots go deep. Gusty is a monthly book review columnist for USADEEPSOUTH.COM.
Read more of Gusty's book reviews on these pages:
Sela Ward’s HOMESICK: A Memoir
Rick Bragg's ALL OVER BUT THE SHOUTIN'
Carl Hiaasen's HOOT
Joyce Dixon's Southern Scribe
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