14/07/2015

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (by Fannie Flagg)

This isn’t a book I would ever have chosen despite the intriguing title. I know nothing about Fannie Flagg, and I tend not to choose American books in general. It was given to me by a friend about five years ago, but it sat on our shelves unopened, almost forgotten, until one evening we watched - and very much enjoyed - the related film ‘Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café’.

So I moved the book to my ‘to be read’ shelves, and finally picked it up about ten days ago. I’d almost entirely forgotten the plot of the film, although, once I got started, I did recall the middle-aged Evelyn Couch becoming friendly with the elderly Ninny Threadgoode when her husband was visiting his mother at a nursing home. Ninny starts talking about the past - the family she learned to love, the café run by one of her sisters in law, and some of the strange people who passed through their lives.

It took a few days to get into the book; it flits between the 1930s and the 1980s and I had a hard time keeping track of all the people in the 1930s. But that didn’t matter too much; gradually the main characters emerged and I found myself, like Evelyn, eager to hear more, while also interested in her personal struggles with negative self-esteem and compulsive eating.

The story in the 1930s is shocking in places, dealing as it does with rampant racism (there are many instances of a word that is considered totally taboo these days), violence, infidelity, and at the same time the total acceptance of a lesbian couple. There’s a macabre mystery which is ongoing, too, in a low-key kind of way; Evelyn and Ninny never do discover ‘whodunit’, but it’s revealed in another flashback towards the end of the book; something I’d quite forgotten from the film, but recalled as I read it.

And yet, despite the alien culture of drop-outs, legal apartheid and paternalism, there’s a warmth that seeps into the pages and conversations from the past. There’s a sense of extended family, and of caring for strangers; this is long gone in the 1980s section, where Ninny is alone in the sterile nursing home, and Evelyn struggles in her marriage.

It’s cleverly written, intertwining past and present as it does, gradually building up the storylines, and closing them up towards the end. There’s a poignancy in the last pages which is perhaps inevitable, and a sense of hope for the future, too.

I won’t be rushing to re-read this, but I’m glad I made the effort. Recommended if you’re interested in American social history of the 1930s, or just want a good read that’s very different from most novels.

There are some traditional 'Southern' recipes in the back, but they sound decidedly unappealing to this Brit!

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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