read by Coleen Marlo
The intriguing title of this book caught my eye, as well as the blurb describing it. Anthropology professor Jackson is going through a midlife crisis while recovering from Lyme disease, trying to decide if he should go back to his African fieldwork site with the Mbuti tribe (and try to find the pygmy woman he impregnated and the daughter they had); or get married and stay in his comfortable academic life at the (fictional) private central Illinois Thomas Ford University. That life includes an affair with another former girlfriend, creative writing professor Claire, now married to an Episcopal minister. His chapters are told in the third person.
Jackson lives a pretty cushy life, thanks to inheriting land with a home from his anthropologist mentor Claude, and renting the garage apartment to university custodian Warren in exchange for the latter serving as handyman. When Warren dies, he gets Jackson to promise to look out for his niece Willa Fern when she gets out of the nearby prison. She's been serving six years for shooting her preacher husband Earl when he forces her to put her hand in a box of rattlesnakes as a test of her fidelity. Jackson and Claire pick up Willa Fern when she is released, and she announces her name is now Sunny. She moves into the garage apartment and offers to take over the caretaking job. Sunny tells her story in first person.
Sunny got the "Snakewoman" nickname is prison when she captured a rattler in the dining area. She's from the Little Egypt part of southern Illinois. She married Earl, pastor of the snake-handling Pentecostal Church of the Burning Bush with Signs Following, at age 16. Now 35, she had a lot of time to think in prison and decides she wants to remake herself. Warren left her $80,000 and his truck, and got her into the university. She throws herself into her new life of learning with gusto, and it IS fun to share her excitement about her studies, although there is a little too much detail about her courses (French, biology, fiction writing, Great Books) and various interests (herpetological research (naturally), French cooking, and playing the timpani). Hellenga is a professor at Knox College in central Illinois (the model for Thomas Ford?), and the descriptions of the campus, classes, and student life feel very real.
Not surprisingly, Jackson and Sunny become lovers. Earl tracks Sunny down, and Jackson convinces Earl to agree to the divorce Sunny wants (with a clever bit of religion), and then decides that Earl's church will be his next anthropological study. Jackson has a reputation for "going native," and that eventually leads to trouble...
I don't want to give the whole story away, so I'll leave it at that. Part of the ending was unexpected, yet satisfying and realistic when you thought back to the beginning of the book. I did find some of the characters' behaviors and motivations (or lack thereof) puzzling. I really liked the character of Sunny, and could identify with her desire for a fresh start and her self-proclaimed joie de vivre (which she amusingly mispronounces as "joey de viver" at first). However, she said she didn't want or need a man, yet one of the first things she does is snoop through Jackson's house looking for evidence of another woman. Claire steps away from her affair with Jackson, and she and Sunny become very good friends, which surprised me. Earl is oddly friendly to Jackson, but is crazy and menacing too. Jackson is the strangest of all. WHY he would continue to have contact with the threatening ex-husband (Earl's beliefs won't permit him to marry again) of the woman Jackson supposedly loves is beyond me. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book.
This book won the 2011 Audie Award for Literary Fiction, and some other reviews out there question why. I think it's because actress Coleen Marlo did a fabulous job creating different voices for the four main characters (Sunny, Jackson, Earl, and Claire). Sunny has just enough of a county accent to be believable; Earl's is more of a caricature, but fits his charismatic yet backward character. Claire sounds as sophisticated as she is, while Jackson is (usually) calm and reasoned. Marlo's reading of the book piqued my interest and made me want to continue the story, even when Hellenga bogged it down with TOO much research and details about squirrels, timpani, the Garden of Eden, deer butchering, yoga, the Mbuti, and other minutiae. Marlo's ability to create suspense and get the listener through all the (unnecessary) details is worthy of an award.
© Amanda Pape - 2011
[The audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library. I also received a print copy of the book from the publisher to review through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. The print copy will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]