Summary: Nobody in Nashville has a bigger name to live up to than Bezellia Grove. As a Grove, she belongs to one of city’s most prominent families and is expected to embrace her position in high society. That means speaking fluent French, dancing at cotillions with boys from other important families, and mastering the art of the perfect smile.
Also looming large is her given name Bezellia, which has been passed down for generations to the first daughter born to the eldest Grove. The others in the long line of Bezellias shortened the ancestral name to Bee, Zee or Zell. But Bezellia refuses all nicknames and dreams that one day she, too, will be remembered for her original namesake’s courage and passion.
Though she leads a life of privilege, being a Grove is far from easy. Her mother hides her drinking but her alcoholism is hardly a secret. Her father, who spends long hours at work, is distant and inaccessible. For as long as she can remember, she’s been raised by Maizelle, the nanny, and Nathaniel, the handyman. To Bezellia, Maizelle and Nathaniel are cherished family members. To her parents, they will never be more than servants.
Relationships are complicated in 1960s Nashville, where society remains neatly ordered by class, status and skin color. Black servants aren’t supposed to eat at the same table as their white employers. Black boys aren’t supposed to make conversation with white girls. And they certainly aren’t supposed to fall in love. When Bezellia has a clandestine affair with Nathaniel’s son, Samuel, their romance is met with anger and fear from both families. In a time and place where rebelling against the rules carries a steep price, Bezellia Grove must decide which of her names will be the one that defines her.-- Shaye Areheart Books
Last summer, I had the pleasure of meeting Susan Gregg Gilmore when she came to Aaron's Books in Lititz, PA as part of her book tour for LOOKING FOR SALVATION AT THE DAIRY QUEEN (my review.) Not only did I love her debut novel, I but I also loved the woman behind it! Susan is just a wonderful person and I can now say that I consider her a friend!
So, today is a big day for Susan! It's the release date for her second novel THE IMPROPER LIFE OF BEZELLIA GROVE. I admit that I was a tad bit worried that this book wouldn't live up to DAIRY QUEEN for me. And, now that we're "friends", what would I do if I didn't like the book? Never fear...I loved THE IMPROPER LIFE OF BEZELLIA GROVE just as much, if not more, that LOOKING FOR SALVATION AT THE DAIRY QUEEN!
THE IMPROPER LIFE OF BEZELLIA GROVE was everything I expected and more. It was an entertaining Southern fiction book and, at the same time, it was very much a coming-of-age story -- two of my very favorite types of fiction! I recognized many of the things that I loved in the last book, namely memorable characters and a great story; however, I think that this book just might have reached the next level for me. I thought Susan definitely did a fantastic job with creating Bezellia's character; and there is absolutely no doubt that Bezellia will stick with me for a very long time.
It's probably obvious by now that I enjoyed this novel very much, but I have to say that what really stood out for me was the character of Bezellia. I absolutely adored her! When the book begins, she is just a young girl and my heart absolutely broke for her because she was forced to grow up so quickly. Her father was a doctor who was often times absent, her mother was a bitter alcoholic, and her younger sister was just a little different. Bezellia actually finds that she is more comfortable with and closer to the "help" despite that they black and not even allowed to sit down and eat with her. In all honesty, they were much more of a family to Bezellia and more instrumental in her upbringing than her own parents. Bezellia wasn't one to judge a person based on a their color or even their family history (unlike her mother), and she wasn't caught up in appearances. In my opinion, Bezellia was just way ahead of her time in so many ways!
By today's standards, I'm still shocked at how blacks were treated in the deep South less than 50 years ago. This book certainly hit home that point to me over and over again. What I so appreciated about Bezellia, though, was that she represented not just a young girl who was trying to overcome her family situation, but rather all of the individuals who realized that discriminating against someone because of the color of their skin or their income level was wrong. I'm not going to say that Bezellia always knew exactly what to do or that it was easy to discard all of the notions that were part of her upbringing, but ultimately, Bezellia was a good woman who was also extremely courageous. While there is no doubt that her family's expectations and obligations (as well as society's as a whole) put a extreme amount of pressure on her to fit in, at the end of the day, Bezellia remained true to herself. And, I think that's why I loved her so much!
Another thing that I really appreciated about THE IMPROPER LIFE OF BEZELLIA GROVE was how well the issue of racism was addressed. Much of the story took place in the 1950s and 1960s -- a time of huge change for our country; and I loved how authentically the South was portrayed. It definitely wasn't a pretty picture, and yet, I think Susan did a great job with giving the reader a realistic glimpse of Nashville at that time. She even included some scenes about Nashville's music scene. As the book moved into the 1960s, the reader gets to see how the South progressed (and how it didn't) while also following the changes in Bezellia's life. Once Bezellia leaves Nashville to attend college in Southwestern Virginia, she begins to see a much larger world -- one that includes the women's lib/feminist movement.
I just loved Susan's writing style! Not only did she create some extremely memorable characters, but she also has a special knack for writing pitch perfect dialogue. Last year, I had the chance to hear Susan read an excerpt from DAIRY QUEEN. (I swear she could do an audio version of the book!) As I read this novel, I could almost hear Susan's voice as Bezellia's. I appreciate so much that she chose to write this story in first person narrative (in Bezellia's voice) because I think that truly made the novel -- I could better relate to Bezellia's character.
You won't be surprised that I think that THE IMPROPER LIFE OF BEZELLIA GROVE would make a fantastic book club pick. I'm even thinking about selecting it the next time I get to host a meeting. I wish that I could have found some discussion questions to link to, but no such luck. This book is perfect for discussion and I'm sure that there will be a reading guide available in the very near future. Having said that, it's definitely not necessary to have formal questions -- there are so many things that I wanted to share with friends after I finished this novel. Some of the topics for discussion include the symbolism of Bezellia's name, addiction, grief, burdens, responsibility, first love, family dynamics, growing up, mother/daughter relationships, sisterly love, sacrifices, racism, and courage.
I am so excited that Susan is returning to Aaron's Books next Wednesday for a very special tea. I can't wait to see her and catch up as well as talk about this wonderful book. Plus I'll be bringing some pound cake which is an important part of Bezellia's life!
I feel like I've already gone on too long about this book and yet I still feel like I could keep writing! I guess that says something about how much I enjoyed THE IMPROPER LIFE OF BEZELLIA GROVE. How about I just stop now and tell you to read it?
Thanks to the author and Megaphone PR for sending me a review copy of this wonderful book.
Giveaway alert: Thanks to the fine folks at Megaphone PR, I have a copy of THE IMPROPER LIFE OF BEZELLIA GROVE to share with one lucky reader. To enter, just fill out the form below. This contest will be open until August 30th at 11:59 p.m. ET, and I will notify the winner the following day. US and Canada mailing addresses only -- no p.o. boxes please. Good luck!