The Richardson Review

A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty by Joshilyn Jackson

Story Tom & Emma Richardson

Book_GrownUpPrettyGrown-Up Kind of Pretty is the fifth novel by Joshilyn Jackson, a New York Times bestselling author and Florida native who now lives outside Atlanta. Trained first as an actor, Jackson worked in regional repertory, wrote plays and short fiction, and then taught freshman English, “trying to explain the function of the gerund and why Waiting for Godot is a great play to crowds of hung-over 18-year-olds.” An active blogger and favorite author of book clubs, Jackson has been a full-time novelist since her first novel, gods in Alabama, sold at auction; she also reads the audio versions of her books, for which she has received many honors, including a nomination for an Audie Award.

Set in the fictional town of Immita, Miss., five miles from the Gulf Coast, A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty offers the vivid voices of three generations of Slocumb women, each chapter bearing the name in turn of 45-year-old Ginny (“Big”), 30-year-old Liza (“Liza-Little”), and Liza’s 15-year-old daughter, Mosey. The story opens with the Slocumb women in a crisis that the past 30 years have built toward, this time one against which they might not prevail. The current trouble — as every kind that has involved the two older Slocumb women — has its roots in their sexuality; Big and Liza bear the burden of breaking the rules of small-town Southern life, while the absent fathers of their children are relatively unaccountable.

While Big’s pregnancy at 14 had been the result of too much zombie punch and the predatory attention of the junior co-captain of the baseball team, about her own daughter Big acknowledges that “When it came time to mapping all the bad ways adolescent girls could go, Liza had been Magellan.” Liza’s “bad ways” trail her life; at the beginning of the novel, Liza has suffered a devastating stroke, which Big attributes (wrongly) to the ravages of an earlier meth addiction — even though Liza has been clean and sober for more than 12 years. Living in the same household, the two older women are determined that Mosey will escape their fates, isolated as they are from the respectable citizens of Immita; Big tells Liza, “if it takes a village, we are screwed, because we don’t have one. We have us.”

The every-15-years “bad year” that storms down on the Slocumbs is rooted in the mystery of bones found underneath the willow tree in Big’s backyard and threatens the fragile security of this family of women. Solving the mystery, though, becomes the catalyst for self-discovery and for a second chance at love.

EMMA: The most compelling things about A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty are the perspectives and voices of Liza and Mosey. Liza’s voice is largely silenced by the stroke she has suffered, so chapters with her name are narrated in third person. The reader breaks from the noisy — and sometimes hyperbolic — voice of Big that dominates much of the novel to get inside Liza’s consciousness as she tries to communicate — and sometimes keep hidden — what she knows about the bones, her daughter, and the cause of her stroke. Liza’s eloquence lies in her silence.

I enjoyed Mosey’s voice the most; if Big’s voice with its theatricality is perhaps too closely allied with the author’s, Jackson renders absolutely believable the perspective, vocabulary (including the language of texting) and cadences of a gifted Southern teen. I’d love to enroll Mosey in my creative writing classes just for her gifts of observation and metaphorical renderings. Mosey describes the man who cuts down the willow tree as “totally hooked on Red Man … so [that] he spewed brown juice like a cricket every place he went.” Mosey describes a meth addict in language borrowed from geometry class: “her two front teeth had been broken out, kind of on the bias, so they looked like isosceles triangles. Or fangs.” Mosey also notices that “the air thicked up like jello” and that her friend Roger “couldn’t stop jiggling his leg and looking around, taking it in like an anthropologist who’s had too much Red Bull.” At 15, Mosey has already learned that good times in life are “a heartbeat in between a shit storm passed over and a thousand more coming,” but she can cling to the twin anchors of a mother’s and grandmother’s love.

TOM: I agree that the voice of Mosey is the most interesting and effective of the novel’s three points of view, and it is her voice that redeems the novel from contrived plot lines and the author’s forced “cleverness” of characterization and description.

Liza’s character in its potential is the most appealing to me, but I did not like the third-person narration for her chapters. Although Liza’s ability to communicate is restricted because of her stroke, she is not brain dead; given her challenges, her story presented through her own mind could have made for a powerful and sympathetic characterization, causing the reader to see and feel — rather than simply know — her story and her present fears and frustrations. As I read Liza’s chapters, I could not help contrasting the weak presentation of her character with the brilliant voice of the comatose Roy Strang in Irvine Welsh’s Marabou Stork Nightmares. Jackson is a capable writer and has a good story to tell in A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty; I wish she had been more attentive to her art.