Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!
by Fannie Flagg
(Random House, $25.95, G) ISBN 0-679-42614-0
There are probably a lot of romance readers out there who loved the movie Fried Green Tomatoes. There are possibly more than a few romance readers who also loved the book on which the film was based, Fannie Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. Both the book and the novel featured strong, interesting female characters and a charming down-home country style.

Unfortunately, those romance readers like myself who eagerly anticipated Fannie Flagg's new novel, Welcome to the World, Baby Girl! are likely to be disappointed. Little of the magic from her earlier novel is present, and the heroine is not strong enough to carry the story.

The heart of the novel is Elmwood, a small southern Missouri town. The town's only claim to fame was the "Neighbor Dorothy" radio show, which was broadcast in the late 1940's from Neighbor Dorothy's home. Although it was only a 200-watt station, Dorothy's feel-good mix of recipes, music, contests and news could sometimes be heard as far away as Canada.

Twenty-five years after Neighbor Dorothy's heyday, Norma Warren is all aflutter because Baby Girl is coming home to Elmwood for a visit. The unspecified Baby Girl is obviously an important personage, because Norma is excited and anxious all at the same time. The object of this adulation turns out to be Dena Nordstrom, a young, fast-rising New York City television news reporter with an ambiguous tie to Elmwood and the Warrens. We learn that Dena is ambitious, smart, stressed out and lonely. Apparently she called her distant relatives when she was drunk and promised to visit. Now, realizing what she's done, she weasels out of the trip with a lame excuse about being sent to Siberia.

The rest of the novel is spent exploring Dena's character. She is totally closed off to herself emotionally and doesn't understand why she behaves self-destructively. Only a physical collapse causes her to finally agree to some therapy as she finally begins to evaluate her history, heritage and psyche. The more she learns, the more she overcomes her denial that she has anything in common with small-town, unsophisticated Norma and the other residents of Elmwood.

The major weakness in Welcome to the World is Dena herself. Because she is such a cipher, it's impossible for the reader to empathize with her or care much about her. Despite a few decent professional decisions, she comes across as shallow, self-centered and clueless. The mystery surrounding Dena's full identity is revealed at the end in a surprising twist, but it requires the late and rushed introduction of a whole new set of characters and thus loses some of its impact.

While the novel is not a romance, there is a man in Dena's life, but for most of the novel she is almost oblivious to his presence. In the funniest scene in the novel, this dedicated suitor appears in Elmwood, where Dena is temporarily staying, dressed as a 15th century troubadour, complete with pink tights and a plumed hat. On his way back home, of course, he is stopped for speeding by a Missouri state trooper (think Barney Fife here) and has to explain himself..with surprising consequences.

Flagg's affection for small town life is admirable, but she really hits the reader over the head with her "city = bad; country = good" message. There is little subtlety in the fact that almost all of Dena's professional acquaintances in New York are slimeballs and almost all of the Elmwood residents are kind and generous, full of down-to-earth wisdom. Having said that, I must admit that the most enjoyable parts of the book were the flashbacks to Neighbor Dorothy's 1948 radio shows. I might have preferred an entire book that focused on her instead of Dena.

There is a fair amount of humor in the novel, and it reads quickly. It's not a bad effort, but it pales in comparison to its exemplary predecessor, Fried Green Tomatoes. Welcome to Reality, Ms. Flagg you can't win `em all.

--Susan Scribner

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