Thursday, April 10, 2008

Home to Big Stone Gap A Decent (if not terribly exciting) Conclusion to One of My Favorite Series

(Image from Amazon)

Reading Home to Big Stone Gap, the final installment of Adriana Trigiani's best-selling series, is a lot like visiting my small hometown after a long absence. I return expecting things to be the same, only to find town has filled with strangers, houses have popped up where they didn't exist before, and my family's longtime neighbor has stopped walking her daily circuits because she died three years ago. When I picked up this book, I honestly could not remember the last time I visited Big Stone Gap. Even after reading Amazon's summaries of the previous books in the series, I only half-remembered them. Still, I started reading, and guess what? The magic of small town Virginia encompassed me, and it felt as if I had never left. Well, okay, I felt more like an amnesiac returning, remembering the magic of a place, and using patchy gossip to fill in the details. But still ...

Home to Big Stone Gap could be read as a standalone, but if you haven't read this series, you really should. Adriana Trigiani has a way of bringing people and places to life that really make her books a pleasure. I have to warn you that the following review may contain SPOILERS, not from this book, but from the first books in the series. I hate SPOILERS, but I'm not sure how to talk about the series' finale without giving away some of the things that have happened along the way. So, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

When we last saw Ave Marie MacChesney, she and her husband Jack Mac were in Italy celebrating (well Jack was celebrating, Ave Marie was sulking) the marriage of their daughter to Stephano. After the wedding, Ave Marie returns to her empty house in Big Stone Gap, where she slips into a blue funk. She misses her daughter, sees visions of her dead son in the woods, and wallows in all the recent losses in her life. When Jack Mac's health takes a frightening turn, she finds herself confronting her own mortality and questioning her ability to cope as a widow. Like its residents, Ave Marie's hometown is also crumbling under "the aging process" (25) - she takes it as one more sign that her secure, happy life is falling apart.

Still, Ave Marie presses on as she always has. After all, she's got her job at the pharmacy, where cranky old Fleeta (I imagine her as Maxine, with her sour face and a cigarette dangling from her lips) keeps things exciting. Then Nellie Goodloe appears clad in a tacky Halloween cardigan and offering a challenge Ave Marie can't refuse - she agrees to direct the community's production of Sound of Music. A surprise wedding and a holiday visit from her best friend, Theodore Tipton, keep Ave Marie's mind off weightier matters. But, worry still lingers. After all, Jack Mac's health is still fragile. Plus, there's a stranger in town who's making Ave Marie's best friend Iva Lou edgy. Obviously, she's harboring a secret, one which could tear their friendship apart. Then, the appearance of some old flames makes Ave Marie's heart skip a few (hundred) beats. Just to complicate everything even more, Jack Mac's got the crazy idea of playing consultant for a strip mining company. The tension, combined with Ave Marie's melancholy, threatens to tear her soul apart. In the end, she has to find her place - in her family, in her hometown, and in her own skin.

Like the rest of the books in this series, Home to Big Stone Gap radiates warmth and charm. The characters are well-drawn, quirky but not over-the-top. They're strong, sympathetic and lovable. Situations are realistic, often hilarious, and sometimes heart-breaking. Ave Marie provides a funny, spirited narrator who examines every nuance in her friends, her husband and her little town. She's always delightful to "chat" with. This book brings back those same qualities, but it carries a more melancholy air than its predecessors. I found it more atmospheric, more dramatic, and more sentimental. The plot seemed a little random, especially the Scotland trip that's tacked on to the end of the story. Still, you can't help but fall in love with Big Stone Gap and the characters that Trigiani's talent brings to life. Home to Big Stone Gap isn't her best novel, but it's still a decent read and a worthy (if not terribly exciting) conclusion to one of my favorite series.

Grade: B

7 comments:

  1. I have been a huge fan of this series from the get-go! Even though I thought this book wasn't as good as the others, I still really enjoyed it.

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  2. I haven't yet read the series, although I do have the first three books lying around the house. I'm not sure why I haven't gotten around to reading them yet . . . Thanks for the great review!

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  3. I read the first and second books and really love the first one, but had issues with the second. I'll give the third one a try again oneday! In the meantime, I'm on the third Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants book and have found it to be as comforting as a well worn pair of jeans.

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  4. I really liked this series to and recommend Big Stone Gap to a lot of people! I liked all of them but I think the first one was my favorite.

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  5. It's been awhile since I've read the first three books, but I remember liking them all. I just love the way Adriana Trigiani writes - her characters are so well-crafted that they feel authentic.

    Stephanie - I'm on the fourth Pants book (I think). I've really enjoyed this series as well.

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  6. I haven't read any of these books in this series, but I've been tempted by them several times. I might just have to take the plunge. As always, thanks for the thoughtful review.

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  7. I loved the first two books in the series but I felt that the third one wasn't up to par (although I'd like to try the Chocolate Coca-cola Cake recipe included there). That's why I'm not quite inclined to get this one. After reading your take on the book though, it feels that I should give in and revisit Big Stone Gap one last time.

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