Not much happens in Paducah, the fictional Kentucky town where most of Bobbie Ann Mason’s stories and novels are set. It is a small world in which the little things count. The tentative affair in the cheap motel, the quiet moments of nostalgia about life before the invasion of shopping malls and cable TV, the private dreams of country music stardom – Mason writes about Southerners who enjoy life’s small pleasures because those are the only ones they are going to get. Even her style, a laconic, unadorned drawl, is wilfully modest. It is a formula which has worked well for Mason, winning her awards, acclaim and movie deals.
Her latest novel, Spence + Lila, is the story of a woman who contracts breast cancer, and the effect her illness has upon her family. Lila is a farmwoman in her mid-sixties who has led a hard but happy life devoted to her husband Spence and their three children. Yet she falls ill during a long-awaited trip to Disneyland and, upon returning to Kentucky, discovers a malignancy in her breast. An emergency mastectomy is performed, followed by the discovery that further surgery is needed on arteries in her neck. As death becomes a real possibility, the family gathers around to provide support for her. Spence is particularly hard-hit, finding it almost impossible to entertain the notion of life without Lila. Her two daughters, Cat and Nancy, hover protectively over their mother, uneasy with the role change that has them now looking after her. Each member of the Culpepper clan is forced to face the harrowing possibility of the loss of the woman who has nurtured them. Yet Lila’s strength prevails, if only for the time being, allowing her both to overcome the devastating effect of the mutilating surgery and to hold her family together.
Spence + Lila is an awful novel, doomed by maudlin clichés, shallow characters and flat prose. Mason has tried to create a strong and simple story, yet has succeeded only in creating one whose sparseness leaves it bereft of feeling. The main problem is with her characters, especially the eponymous