Two weeks ago, a group of 15 women, all of us members of a chick-lit book club, had dinner together to discuss the book we selected the month before. The group consensus was that the book, by a fairly popular women's author, was "average," the characters were underdeveloped, and the ending unsatisfactory. Personally, I liked it.
At the time, I had just started Beth Hoffman's second novel, "Looking for Me," and was concerned that this could be women's fiction that falls into the "average" category. As I began to read, I wondered how this book about Teddi Overman, a Kentucky farm girl who sees potential in cast-off furniture and then makes that potential real, would appeal to me and to the book club readers I know. What I discovered was a lyrical, almost mystical story that reflects life on a Kentucky farm, the wildness of the Red River Gorge, and the genteel South of Charleston, S.C.
"LOOKING FOR ME"
By Beth Hoffman
Pamela Dorman Books/Viking ($27.95)
Teddi grows up on the Overman family farm in Kentucky with her loving father, her unhappy mother, her younger brother, Josh, and her Grammy Belle. Teddi's mother projects her personal misery onto Teddi. Out of necessity, Teddi becomes the caregiver of Josh, witnessing his love and affinity for the wildlife in the rugged environment that they live in. Josh is raised to become a farmer like his father, while Teddi dreams of a future restoring yard sale and flea market finds and making them into something beautiful. At her high school graduation in 1973, Teddi receives an old Ford Falcon from her dad and a brand new typewriter from her mother. In the middle of the night, Teddi leaves notes on the table for each member of her family, leaves the typewriter to gather dust in her closet and travels to pursue her dream in Charleston.
The book follows Teddi through the next 20 years, her adult life underscored by the eventual disappearance of her brother into the wilderness of the Red River Gorge, and of her mother's continual condemnation of Teddi for taking a chance at what she loved. She also unreasonably blames Teddi for Josh's disappearance and snidely voices those thoughts at every opportunity. As Teddi's life unfolds, she recognizes that the choices she makes are the result of the environment she grew up in and that often her good fortune is the result of serendipity and the grace of various souls in Charleston.
Ms. Hoffman writes Teddi's story in the first person, and the Kentucky dialect paces the storytelling so that Teddi seems to take on whatever comes to her, accepting disappointment gracefully and celebrating her good fortune with a sort of quiet joy that would be expected from a woman whose life lessons are rooted in nature. Ms. Hoffman, a former interior designer, describes the furniture cast-offs that Teddi transforms with beauty and detail that are intriguing to read and demonstrate the beauty in Teddi's character. Josh's passion for the wilds is believable because of Ms. Hoffman's personal interest in animal rescue and the environment.
Teddi never quite leaves Kentucky for Charleston. Her frequent trips reflect the life she's tried to leave and contrast it with the life she's trying to build in a new place. Ms. Hoffman gently nudges the reader to champion Teddi as she makes brave and bold decisions that could easily fail.
"Looking for Me" is far more than an average book. Ms. Hoffman allows Teddi to surprise herself at the outcomes of her own decisions and to maturely understand how they came to be. No storyline is left hanging, yet the door is open for a sequel.
While the title is apt, it really does not describe the depth with which the story unfolds and childhood memories enhance the events of Teddi's 20-year journey to find peace with the choices she and her family make. Teddi learns she is a product of her environment, but she also creates a wonderful life on her own. I think all 15 of the book club ladies would agree that this book is worth reading, and would then, over a delightful dinner, enjoy talking about what we find when we are "Looking for Me."
Lorinda Hayes: firstname.lastname@example.org.