"The Lost Saints of Tennessee," by Amy Franklin-Willis, and "That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor," by Anne Sebba
This eighth-generation Southerner's debut novel skillfully chronicles the misadventures of a poor small-town Tennessee family from the 1950s to the '80s. It's narrated by two glum souls -- middle-aged Ezekiel Cooper, mired in boozy grief in the wake of his twin brother's drowning and a divorce he didn't want, and Lillian, the widowed mother from whom he is estranged, who is dying of lung cancer. Written in homespun but accomplished prose, it's a very good novel when relaying the Cooper family's many tragedies, struggles and secrets, but feels wooden and unbelievable when it moves to the Virginia apple farm owned by Ezekiel's aunt and uncle, where he flees for refuge and healing. The elderly couple's unconditional love and economic generosity are almost too good to believe, as is the presence right next door of a wealthy, sexy, single woman who raises horses. Hate to say a book's better in its dark passages than its hopeful ones, but it's painfully true with this one. Still, it's an impressive first novel, perfect for anyone with a tenderness for rural Tennessee and tangled Southern families.
PAMELA MILLER, NIGHT METRO EDITOR
I assumed it would be difficult -- if not impossible -- to write a boring biography of Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee who brought down the king of England, but I was wrong.
Although thorough, well researched and documented in detail, Anne Sebba's book is surprisingly dull.
It seems that in her zeal to be accurate (something Simpson didn't bother with in her 1956 autobiography), Sebba examines her subjects with a microscope, ultimately wringing the life out of the colorful, chaotic and obsessively ambitious Simpson as well as her charming but infantile husband, King Edward VIII.
Too much is made of Simpson changing her name. (Does going from Bessiewallis to Wallis really qualify as "the supreme act of self-creation"?) And pages are devoted to a dry examination of whether Simpson has a disorder of sexual development, androgen insensitivity syndrome or was a pseudo-hermaphrodite. (Despite the fact that she quotes contemporary doctors, there is no conclusive evidence.)
The book is at its best when Sebba lets her subjects speak for themselves through their letters, or when she explains the reaction of the royalty to the American upstart, or when she reveals how the "world's greatest romance," as it was once known, was seen by the average pre-war Englishman.
Sebba does a notable job of encapsulating an era, but she never completely conjures her larger-than-life character.
CONNIE NELSON, SENIOR EDITOR FOR LIFESTYLES