The Wilder Sisters

Bad Girl Creek by Jo-Ann Mapson
(Simon & Schuster, $24, PG) ISBN 0-7432-0256-2
Take four women who are down but not out, add their assorted pets, place them together in a beautiful California setting, and you have Bad Girl Creek, a wonderful demonstration of Girl Power. I was lukewarm at best about Jo-Ann Mapson’s previous book, The Wilder Sisters, but after reading this novel I could see why she has a cadre of loyal readers.

Her Aunt Sadie’s death leaves Phoebe DeThomas at the doorway of a new, exciting but frightening world. Thirty-eight year old Phoebe has spent most of her life in a wheelchair, with a spinal chord traumatized at birth and a weak heart to boot. But after receiving her beloved Aunt Sadie’s California flower farm as her inheritance, Phoebe has to figure out if she keep the business going or, as her practical brother James advises, sell it and live comfortably off the proceeds.

Phoebe’s unusual solution is to open her new home to three other women who are at life’s crossroads. Ness is a beautiful black woman who left her blacksmith job when her lover told her of his HIV positive status, but not before she stole her favorite horse. Nance finally dumped her no-good live-in boyfriend when it became obvious he would never make a long-term commitment and when she realized that if the condo caught on fire, and I had only enough time to save Duchess (her dog) or Rick, Rick would have been the crispy critter. Beryl has the most unfortunate background, including marriage to an abusive husband and a jail term for manslaughter when she killed him in self-defense. Her parrot, Verde, was once owned by a drug dealer and knows only the most colorful, multi-lingual curse words.

Somehow these four disparate women bond together and work hard to make Aunt Sadie’s legacy a success. There are surprises waiting for them - lovers, travel, sickness, death - but the bad girls of Bad Girl Creek bloom like the flowers they so carefully tend and find the courage to face whatever life gives them. Phoebe, in particular, learns that even a 38-year old virgin in a wheelchair (wearing purple high-top sneakers) can be attractive to the right man.

The four women take turns narrating the story in their distinct voices. This allows the reader to see them both from their own and their friends’ perspectives, resulting in an engaging character-driven story with plenty of spicy, sassy dialogue. The women are survivors, but they all came from maladaptive families and have made inadvisable life choices. Within the shelter of their newly-formed family, they heal and move forward. Mapson’s fondness for her characters, and for their pets, is obvious, although it seems unrealistic that they would all get along so quickly and easily.

The Central California coast setting and Aunt Sadie’s guidance about flower gardening, dispensed through the journal she leaves for Phoebe, give the novel a lush descriptive tone without slowing down its pace. There is also a touch of Southwestern mysticism, but that is more than compensated for by the women’s earthiness.

Bad Girl Creek is the first of a planned trilogy about these characters, although the author predicts that some of the women will move on, while new housemates will be introduced. I will be on the lookout for the next installment, and will hope that it brings only positive changes for these memorable women.

--Susan Scribner

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