The Wilde Women
by Paula Wall
(Atria, $24, PG-13) ISBN  978-0-74349621-6
*****
In this provocative and reminiscent novel, Wall takes us to Five Points (no one can seem to remember what the fifth point is, but it sounds better than four, right?), Tennessee, birthplace of the Wilde sisters, their mother Lorna, and all of the lore that comes along with the name.

Known for their beauty, intelligence, and lethal ways with men, the Wilde women have created a legacy of nonchalance and a collection of walking wounded. Throw in three vivacious personalities in a town gone gray from misuse and near-despair, and you have yourself three living legends. The history between Pearl, her younger sister Kat, and the son of the regional bootlegging magnate is a favored topic of gossip ... er, conversation.

Three years ago, Pearl walked in on Kat and her fiance, Bourne Cavanaugh. She walked right back out and into the night. The only word anyone ever hears from her is through postcards that arrive from exotic places the world over. Kat remains in Five Points, working at the shirt factory, and their mother runs off with another woman's man.

Kat is spotted by Mason Hughes, the son of the factory owner. As is usual, Mason instantly wants her, but Kat isn't one to be easy prey. For the first time in his life applying himself, Mason uproots himself from his high society life in Memphis and comes to his mother's family home in Five Points. Initially, the story that he is there to manage the family interests is just a ruse, but day by day Mason grows more intrigued with the business and management thereof; not to mention Five Points, the locals, and especially Kat Wilde.

Meanwhile, Pearl is finally back in town, and opening a whorehouse, much to the annoyance of the local ladies, who secretly enjoy having something worthwhile to gossip over. Pearl's isn't your average sawdust-on-the-floor joint; it's high-class and by invitation only. Pearl seems to be the only one who doesn't realize she's doing this to get back at Bourne for his infidelity. Bourne hasn't managed, despite helping to run the still and dealing with his younger brother's shotgun wedding to an underaged local girl, to get over Pearl, but he stays out of her way.

Between the two, Mason and Pearl are bringing commerce back to Five Points. That is at the center of the story: the town. The Wilde Women has the dreary, gossipy, and morbid sense of Masters' The Spoon River Anthology, and nearly as accurate an insight into the human spirit.  The citizens of Five Points are tired and ground to the bone by the everyday hassles that befall a community nearing the end of its downhill slide. The only touch of brightness is the Wilde family, who, despite their pitfalls, are somewhat idolized for being the only people doing something different.

Now, this is sounding depressing, and parts of The Wilde Women are just that. But, moreso, it is a story of hope, revival, and reconciliation.  The sense of loss that hangs over Five Points has smothered too many relationships, and when Pearl comes back to town and Kat finally steps up, friendships and marriages are rekindled. Naturally, there are those too bitter for such things, and they add their own color to the weave.

What will draw the reader in is the masterful storytelling. Wall, a columnist, remains completely removed from the story, but manages omniscience so well one never feels the loss. The Wilde Women rotates through numerous different plots outside of Kat's and Pearl's, and readers who prefer fewer characters will find this tedious or even downright confusing.  From the outside, The Wilde Women seems to mirror her previous novel, The Rock Orchard.  However, The Wilde Women seems more vivid, more alive. Wall's fiction style has blossomed fully; it takes a special talent to take something as every day as a town down on its luck and make it into a lyrical wonder that still somehow pares away the illusions.

There is no single, specific plotline, and the meandering speed suits the tone and the characters. Wall could have added another fifty pages to make the ending less abrupt; only here does her tapestry begin to unravel. An occasional plot twist, especially toward the end, will make readers either laugh or cry, and there is bound to be one character to whom every reader can relate.

--Sarrah Knight


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