Saint Mary's alumna Adriana Trigiani's novel explores relationships and growing up in a small Virginia town
By SARAH RYKOWSKI
True love can happen anywhere, at any time. No one is too old or too young. That is just one of the messages Adriana Trigiani sends in her best-selling novel "Big Stone Gap." The only event that truly dates this novel is a visit to the town by Elizabeth Taylor, stumping for her then-husban, Representative John Warner, in 1978.
Trigiani's work is not just a love story; it is a masterpiece of storytelling. As main character Ave Maria Mulligan narrates the story for the reader, her voice remains genuine and true. Through Ave Maria, Trigiani makes each and every character and place come alive. Even when Ave Maria relates a story from her childhood or past experience, there is always a connection between the tale and the overall plot. The reader feels connected to Ave Maria through her sorrows, her joys and her journeys, as well as those of her acquaintances.
Set in the Virginia mountains of Appalachia in the 1970s, "Big Stone Gap" is full of the antics of small town life. Everyone knows everything about everyone else — or at least thinks they do. That is where the fun begins. Ave Maria is 36 years old as the curtain rises on her story. On the verge of middle age, she suddenly feels out of place in a town where so many of her peers are parents of teenagers and some are even grandparents. Ave Maria, named by her Italian mother, is set apart from the rest of the town — not only because of her heritage, but also because she went off to college. Most women in her generation married straight out of high school, stayed home and had children. "Let me blame life. Life keeps interfering with my plans. First Fred Mulligan was sick; then I took care of Mama, business got to booming and I took on more and more and thought about myself less and less," Ave Maria laments. Fred Mulligan, Ave Maria's father, ran the town pharmacy. Ave Maria took over the business after she graduated from college and her father fell ill with cancer. As Ave Maria's search for her identity and place in the world continues, she decides that what she really wants is a man, someone to have, to hold and to love. There is just one small problem with her new resolve. "Around here, men my age have been married since they were seventeen. Some of them are grandfathers already. There are no men!" she exclaims. Ave Maria volunteers as the director of the town's outdoor drama, "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine." Events transpire at one of the performances in such a way that she finds herself back on the marriage market.
Despite the shortage of desirable men of marriageable age in Big Stone Gap, once Ave Maria has revealed her desire to relinquish the dubious honor of town spinster, she has no lack of proposals. Along with these proposals, Ave Maria must deal with a greedy aunt and uncle, revisiting the pain of adolescence and the family skeletons that fall out of the closet when her mother dies in the opening chapter.
When addressing the pains of growing up, Trigiani paints a beautiful and accurate picture of each generation involved. Ave Maria is pitted against her generation's beauty, Sweet Sue Tinsley — a recent divorcee and mother of two who is vying for the attentions of the same man — and later, Sarah Dunleavy, the new English teacher, who is young and beautiful. Ave Maria sees her own situation with Sweet Sue repeating itself in the younger generation. Pearl Grimes is an insecure, chubby teenager, horribly and understandably jealous of the homecoming queen/star of the outdoor drama, Tayloe Slagle. Tayloe is everyone's perfect girl.
These characters are in no way stereotypical as Trigiani paints them, another indication of the author's skill as a verbal illustrator. "I wish I could tell Pearl that being the prettiest girl in town was no great shakes, but eventually she would find out the truth. When you're 15, it is everything. And when you're 35, it's still something. Beauty is the fat yellow line down the middle of Powell Valley Road. And it's best to figure out — and the sooner the better — which side you fall on, because if you don't do it for yourself, the world will. Why wait for the judgement?" Ave Maria says.
In a fit of empathy, for Pearl's situation, Ave Maria hires Pearl on at the pharmacy. The only other employee — the chain-smoking, WWF fanatic Fleeta Mullins — wants to retire. Pearl takes to the pharmacy like a fish to water, joining Weight Watchers and learning about face products to take care of her acne. Pearl's grades improve along with her confidence. In Pearl, Ave Maria is able to find a solution to the demands of her aunt and uncle. Ave Maria is also co-captain of the local Rescue Squad, and Trigiani uses this position as an inciting incident quite often throughout the pages that comprise Ave Maria's journey.
An accident at the local high school involving a toilet introduces the reader to Theodore Tipton, Ave Maria's best friend and a fellow outsider. Theodore is a teacher and the band director at Powell Valley High School. This incident is also the first time Pearl enters in on the action.
When Elizabeth Taylor visits, Ave Maria and her team are the first paramedics on the scene as the screen star chokes on a chicken bone at the gala dinner the town throws in her honor. (According to the author's note, Taylor really did visit the Gap in 1978 with her husband and was taken to the hospital after choking on a bone.) At the dinner, Ave Maria's personal life dilemma unfolds in more painful detail before her audience.
A mining accident reveals the dangerous livelihood which supports most of the town's families, further separating the career-minded Ave Maria from her peers. Most of the men go straight from high school into the mines, because "Mining is a family tradition; usually sons follow fathers into the mines, and their sons will follow them."
The accident also serves as a step in Ave Maria's awakening to her emotions — which she has hitherto ignored — and develops another pivotal character in Trigiani's plot, taciturn Jack "Jack Mac" MacChesney, a miner. MacChesney, still a bachelor, lives with his energetic mother, "Apple Butter" Nell, who plays fairy godmother to Ave Maria. "The best thing a father can do for his son is love his mother," Jack says at one point, underscoring Ave Maria's quandary.
As for her family troubles, Ave Maria uses the small town's gossip mill to skillfully arrange an answer to her aunt and uncle's demands, and Trigiani uses a surprising but plausible turn of events to resolve Ave Maria's discoveries about her family following her mother's death. An important part of Ave Maria's journey of self-discovery is her role in the town. As an Italian, Roman Catholic, college-educated and unmarried resident of Big Stone Gap, Ave Maria finds herself in a minority, and qustions whether she actually belongs in the community or has merely been a visitor in it for 35 years. She plans a journey to Italy to explore her roots, which causes futher complications.
While all this goes on, Ave Maria continues to explore the singles scene. After her best friend, Iva Lou Wade, the Bookmobile librarian and town sexpot, finally settles on a man, Ave Maria feels more pressure to find her own partner in matrimony. She discovers why she has avoided such relationships for so long, even while she was away at college. "As the town spinster, I had no picture of my old age. Being alone gave me a certain timelessness ... I froze myself in time, hoping it would not catch me. I was so afraid to love someone for fear I would fail," she feels.
Ave Maria also comes to terms with her troubled relationship with her father, 12 years after his death, and uses this knowledge to define what she wants to do with the rest of her life.The characters are a scream — from their names to Ave Maria's descriptions to the way they speak and behave. Trigiani allows Ave Maria Mulligan to dabble in the Chinese art of face-reading to aid in her verbal pictures. But Ave Maria's face studies are not just a hobby or a simple device used for description; they play an important part in the plot development of this novel. "It was then that I first checked out this book on Chinese face reading. I thought that if I read my father's face, I would be able to understand why he was so mean ... He had small eyes (sign of deceptive nature), a bulbous nose (sign of money in midlife, which he had from owning the Pharmacy), and no lips. Okay, he had two lips, but the set of the mouth was one tight gray lead-pencil line. That is a sign of cruelty," Ave Maria discovers.
Trigiani's cast is not only amusing in their actions and conversations, but extremely believable and genuine. All in all, "Big Stone Gap" is sweet, suspenseful with out seeming contrived and well-written from the first line to the last. There is enough suspense to hook even the most jaded mystery readers, enough of the classical touch to satisfy the literary elite and plenty of laughs and tears for the average reader of all ages and types. This is a work of art with the potential to touch even the hardest heart. As Whoopi Goldberg says, "[This is] one of my all-time favorite novels ... unforgettable."
The author will discuss and sign copies of her book, published by Random House, tomorrow in Hammes Bookstore at 2 p.m. There will be a reception with further signings and discussions as well as readings from the book in Haggar Student Center's Welsh Parlor from 4-6 p.m. A motion picture based on Trigiani's book is in the works, which Trigiani is writing and plans to direct. The movie is being produced by The Shooting Gallery, the same film company that worked on "Sling Blade."
All Scene Stories for Friday, April 14, 2000