Warning: Spoilers ahead, but I think potential readers deserve a fair warning of what theyíre getting.
This book made me angry. Really, really mad. I was expecting this sequel to the charming, folksy Big Stone Gap to be more of the same. Instead I got a depressing melodrama about a failing marriage. If Big Stone Gap was a fairy tale, Big Cherry Holler is a horror story.
The novel opens in the mid 1980ís, eight years after the events of Big Stone Gap. Ave Maria Mulligan, former self-proclaimed spinster of the Western Virginia mountain town, thought that marriage to Jack MacChesney, the musician and coal miner who courted her, would be her own personal happily ever after. But real life hasnít worked out that way. The couple lost their young son to leukemia three years ago. Jack has just learned that the coal mine is being shut down for good. And Ave and Jack have grown so far apart they can barely see each other anymore.
Still, Ave has the support of her good friends, including Pearl Grimes, Aveís protťgť and owner of the town pharmacy; Iva Lou Wade Makin, librarian and sex queen; and Theodore Tipton, Aveís best friend and soul mate who now has the awesome responsibility of directing the University of Tennessee marching band. They try to help her through her crises, and when all else fails, they watch her go off to Italy to spend time with her fatherís family and decide if her marriage can be salvaged. Matters become more complicated when Ave meets a handsome American who pursues her despite her wedding ring. Will Ave stay faithful to Jack, even though sheís pretty sure heís been running around on her? Will the two ever reconcile enough to share the grief theyíve hidden since the loss of their son? Will their remaining child, Etta, grow up too soon?
I donít require all sweetness and light in the books I read, and Iíve encountered a few in which relationships overcome infidelity and emerge even stronger. But I found critical weaknesses in Big Cherry Holler. First, the author didnít stay true to her readers. Big Stone Gap was delightfully quirky, like complex bluegrass music, with both humorous and serious scenes. This book is more like a sad one-note country song. Also, the townís wonderful secondary characters are kept in the background when they should have been prominently featured. Pearl, a former dirt-poor mountain girl, is in love with an Indian physician, but their relationship is glossed over. Theodore, now in Knoxville, has realized why he never married, but that too is casually mentioned and then dropped. These, and the other characters, deserved better.
But my major grievance with the book is the authorís insistence on placing the blame for all of the problems between Ave and Jack squarely on Aveís shoulders. She spends way too much time apologizing for being a terrible wife and wondering how to get her man back. Her crime? She didnít have enough faith in Jack and she didnít share enough of herself with him. Iím willing to admit that it takes two to make a marriage, but why is the burden for change only on Ave? Why does she aim her anger at the hussy who tries to take Jack away, but none on the hound dog himself?
I wouldnít be so angry if I hadnít come to care about these characters so much in Big Stone Gap. I finished this novel without a lot of faith that Ave and Jack will stay together, despite the alleged happy ending, and that made me sad. I felt as if I had experienced the breakup of two friends. While that says a lot about Ms. Trigianiís power as an author, it doesnít make me want to re-read this book, and it makes me wary of a rumored third book in the series.
Big Cherry Holler wonít make a lot of sense unless you read Big Stone Gap first; frankly, I urge you to read Trigianiís debut novel (now available in paperback) and stop there. Youíre heading for a major bummer if you pick up the sequel.