I was predisposed to like Erica Orloff’s second novel because my husband is a devoted blues music fan (in St. Louis we have to distinguish that concept from our hockey team). But even references to Etta James and Kid Ory wouldn’t be enough to earn my recommendation if the story wasn’t engaging. Fortunately, Diary of a Blues Goddess is a lively novel full of colorful characters that more than fulfills the promise hinted at in Orloff’s quirky debut novel, Spanish Disco.
Georgia Ray Miller’s home is the real House of Blues. Once an elegant brothel, the 20-bedroom mansion is now an unofficial heartbreak hotel, where Georgia’s friends check in to recover from love affairs gone bad. Permanent residents include Georgia’s grandmother, her best friend Dominique (formerly known as Damon before she got in touch with her inner drag queen) and an opinionated ghost who slams doors whenever someone makes a romantic misstep. As Georgia wryly notes, there’s been a lot of door-slamming lately.
Georgia has never endured real heartbreak, although she’s had a series of disappointing relationships. As the lead singer for Georgia’s Saints, the best wedding band in New Orleans, she has seen marriages begin both auspiciously (bride and groom happily crying) and ominously (groom making out with a bridesmaid). She serenades the newly wedded couples with countless renditions of Celebration! and The Electric Slide, but dreams of being a blues singer, belting out songs that will touch people and make them feel. Lacking the nerve to break away from the Saints, Georgia gets her blues fix from Red Watson, an elderly piano player who reassures her that she can become a blues goddess like Bessie Smith if she sings from her heart. But will it take genuine heartache to unleash Georgia’s passion? Or have the blues lived inside her all along?
Like Cassie, heroine of Orloff’s Spanish Disco, Georgia is a tough-talking but vulnerable heroine. Unlike Cassie, Georgia is surrounded by a lively set of secondary characters who give the story energetic radiance. The band members – handsome Jack, mysterious Tony, family man Gary (who reminded me of Beau Bridges in Fabulous Baker Boys) and alcoholic Mike – all make important contributions to Georgia’s evolution. Georgia’s grandmother and Red Watson provide wisdom and support without being too corny. And the comic relief is provided by Dominique, a screamingly funny drag queen who makes Ru Paul look like Tom Brokaw.
Georgia’s love life endures ups and downs, but her journey towards self-acceptance is given equal footing with her search for Mr. Right. Until she’s comfortable with herself – mixed race heritage, single parent upbringing, nontraditional lifestyle and all – she can’t really sing the blues the way they’re meant to be heard.
The Crescent City culture has a strong effect on Georgia’s lifestyle, and Orloff, a Florida native, does a credible job of creating a strong sense of place without overdoing the Cajun dialect. The only slight misstep is the addition of 1939 diary excerpts from Georgia’s Great-Aunt Honey Walker, an aspiring blues singer. The diary entries are too few and far between, providing the reader with only a mere glimpse of her fascinating, ultimately tragic life.
Erica Orloff (whose head shot makes her look like a dead ringer for country goddess K.T. Oslin) has created a gritty, vibrant, amusing, thoughtful and thoroughly satisfying second novel. I salute her for that accomplishment, and for having the good sense to appreciate the magic of Etta James singing At Last.