Patty Jane's House of Curl
by Lorna Landvik
(Ivy, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-8041-1460-9
****
I almost suggested to Romance Reader editor Dede Anderson that she post this novel under the "fantasy" category, because I felt like I had entered a slightly altered reality while I was reading Patty Jane's House of Curl. Or maybe I should paraphrase a famous film question: "Is this Heaven?" "No, it's Minnesota." I apologize to all Hawkeyes out there, but this brave new world is none other than Minneapolis, circa 1953.

Part One of this singular novel begins with the marriage of Patty Jane Dobbins to Thor Rolvaag. Patty Jane is enchanted with her almost too-handsome college-educated husband. Thor loves Patty Jane in his own casual sort of way, but he is horrified when she announces, accurately, that she has conceived on their wedding night. Thor lost his own father at an early age, and he isn't ready to be a father yet, if ever.

Good thing Patty can always depend on her younger sister, Harriet. The two girls have taken care of each other since childhood, because their parents were too busy drinking and passing out to notice their daughters' needs. While Patty Jane has the beauty and the determination, Harriet has been blessed with an almost otherworldly musical talent. But she doesn't have the means to nurture her gift until she falls in love with Avel Ames, whose short stature belies his large fortune and generous heart.

Part Two takes place ten years later. Both Patty Jane and Harriet are on their own again, although Patty Jane is now the proud mother of daughter Nora. Thor is gone, but Ione, his mother, has unexpectedly allied herself with her daughter-in-law. Together, the women run Patty Jane's House of Curl, a unique establishment that offers haircuts, manicures, desserts, music, dance breaks and classes to enlighten the mind. The House of Curl is a haven for the community's women, who often drop by even when they don't need a cut or perm. Patty Jane, Harriet, Ione and Nona are going to need the support of this sisterhood over the next few years, as surprises -- both good and bad -- await them. But as Patty Jane says, "Life can be a ballroom dance, or it can be full of shit. Your job in both cases is to watch where you step."

This breakthrough novel from Lorna Landvik has been compared to Fannie Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by way of Garrison Keillor. That may be an apt comparison, but Landvik has her own unique voice that resonates with homespun wisdom, sisterhood, humor, pathos, tragedy and the basic goodness of mankind. Her quirky characters lead incredible lives full of unusual encounters. I doubt that a five foot two millionaire who falls in love at first sight and lends his car to a perfect stranger so he can have a picnic with his new "ladyfriend" really exists, but then I've never been to Minnesota. Landvik obviously has a great deal of affection for the state and its Scandinavian inhabitants, even as she pokes gentle fun at the "11th Norwegian Commandment (Avoid Confrontation)." They may be loathe to spill their emotions, but Minnesotans sure are willing to go the extra mile to help someone in need.

Patty Jane's House of Curl is not without its weaknesses. I never did quite get a handle on Patty Jane's tough but tender character -- I felt like I was observing her life instead of experiencing it with her. And I wish Landvik had written in more detail about the steps that occurred between the moment when Patty Jane decided to enter cosmetology school and when the House of Curl became a flourishing reality.

But, uff-da mayda (as Ione frequently utters)! Just a few days ago I finished a book that purported to be about sisterly bonds but was sadly lacking. Patty Jane's House of Curl, more than anything else, is a tribute to that special sibling relationship. Read it and weep, laugh and sigh. I'll bet that, like myself, you'll soon be on the lookout for more from this author, and wondering what you missed by settling down in one of the other 49 states.

--Susan Scribner


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