Although they say don’t judge a book by its cover or title, I’m glad I did. I bought Karen M Cox’s new novel, Son of a Preacher Man, because of the title: it borrows it from Dusty Springfield’s classic song with the same title, and the hero of the book, “Billy Ray was a preacher’s son/ and when his daddy would visit he’d come along” just like in the song. It was published by Meryton Press 5 years ago as At the Edge of the Sea. I think the new title is a better choice and much more fitting. It’s written in first person singular telling the story from Billy Ray’s point of view. The opening scene is – in 1959 summer, Southern Virginia – very descriptive, in the best sense of the word. I can imagine every moment. I can see the colours, smell the scent, hear the song, feel the heat on my skin. Love the euphemisms Ms Cox uses, like “evangelising to the salt of the earth.”
Orchard Hill, the very “southern” small town where Elizabeth lives labelled her as a slut. In this place everyone knows everyone; everybody is involved in everybody’s life, and some of the characters are known for their cooking abilities. Heat is a returning symbol, and of course, there is no south without the famous (sweet) iced tea which they drink all the time. (Would be fun to check how many litres they consumed during the book. Haha.) With the 1960s and the southern, religious setting the writer found the perfect era where regency rules apply, but it doesn’t feel enforced. I don’t know much about 1960’s language, only what I picked up from the era’s musicals like Carousel, Oklahoma, State Fair, etc. but it reminded me to those, especially when I read “fella.” Love that word.
Just like in the TV series 7th Heaven, (who wasn’t in love with Barry Watson), in the novel also, the religious message is delicately wrapped into real-life problems. Ms Cox uses quotes from the Bible regularly and the explanation of the passages move the story forward. It doesn’t come across as indoctrination; just a genuine answer or guidance in need, what you can expect when your hero is the son of the vicar.
One of my favourite scenes is where Billy Ray is confused at first; then lamenting and trying to figure out what’s going on, and finally, everything makes sense.
The book also deals with questions like birth control, and it does it in a Nora Ephronesque way. It’s almost like an essay hidden in the story with different characters having different opinions on the subject; giving a chance to the author to talk about it but not telling us her view on it.
Lizzy is playful, fun, spirited, witty and although she had her fair share of problems, she deals with it gracefully. Billy Ray is a very Darcyesque figure: arrogant, judging, caring, comes from money. BR’s dad corrected his way of thinking about certain things quite early in the novel. Dad is a fascinating character as he is a preacher on one side, but he is also a dad on the other hand. This duplicity becomes a conflict later in the story. When he drew Billy’s attention to a particular matter and helped him see it in another light, he did it as a preacher man; but later he couldn’t see the same thing when he approached the same problem as a dad. I did not quite understand why he was so stubborn on the matter, but there is an explanation, and I’m not a dad, so I take it.
Lizzy and Billy have lots of time together in the beginning when their relationship is blossoming, so you can enjoy lots of lovely dates. I love that the author doesn’t forget that BR is a “real man” or “any man” despite the very religious upbringing, which makes him vulnerable and not unreal. There is a first proposal which is faithful to the original, but at the same time, it is also very modern and clever. It works well. The letter explaining the past comes from Lizzy here, not the man. It’s heart-breaking to read about the events which shaped Lizzy. The hardest part is to read about how pessimistic Lizzy is. All you want is to shake her and help.
Some of the supporting characters are also quite interesting. The author wasn’t too generous to Marlene Miller when she distributed kindness. I hated her to guts, so I guess her character was interesting. On the other hand, I loved what Ms Cox did with Mrs Gardiner and the preacher’s sister, Aunt Catherine. I like it when the secondary characters are strong and almost as important as the main ones.
It’s a delightful, great story, which avoids the traps religious storylines offer, namely that the characters and events could be too religious, hence unreal. You can enjoy Son of a Preacher Man regardless your beliefs. This book is my favourite read of this year so far.