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review 2018-07-03 09:23
A #coming of age story full of atmosphere and a nostalgic look at a more innocent era
Son of a Preacher Man: A Novel - Karen M. Cox

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (authors, check here if you are looking for reviews) and thank her and the author for the ARC copy of the book, which I freely chose to review.

Recently, I read and reviewed one of Karen M. Cox’s novels I Could Write a Book (you can read the review here) and as she was one of the authors who’d also taken part in one of my favourite recent anthologies (Dangerous to Know: Jane Austen’s Rakes & Gentlemen Rogues, check that review here), when I heard she was going to publish a new book and read the description, I had to check it out.

In contrast with the other two books, this book is not a Regency novel (it takes place in the South of the USA in the late 1950s –early 1960s), and it is not related to Jane Austen (although, like her novels, is excellent at reflecting the social mores of the place and the era). It is the story, narrated in the first person, of Billy Ray Davenport, a young man with a tragedy in his past (he lost his mother to a terrible accident), whose father is a travelling preacher. He used to spend his summers travelling with him (he went to school and stayed at his aunt’s the rest of the year), but when we meet him, just before he goes to medical school, he is due to spend a few weeks with a doctor, friend of the family. He hopes to gain medical knowledge and get a taste of what his future will be like. This summer will prove momentous for Billy Ray, who will learn much more about the world, small-town society, girls, and himself than he had known until then. What he experiences there will make him question some of his strong-held beliefs and what he is truly made of.

This novel captures beautifully the everyday life in a small-town, where rumours and whispers can destroy somebody’s reputation (especially a young girl’s), where everybody knows everybody else and there is nothing private and nowhere to hide.  Marlene, the daughter of the doctor Billy Ray is working with, takes a shine to him and proves to be very spiteful, badmouthing and spreading rumours about another girl, Lizzie. Lizzie is like a modern scarlet woman, and her behaviour repels and attracts Billy Ray in equal measure, putting his beliefs about proper behaviour and relationships between men and women to the test.

Lizzie is a great character. Although she does not always behave consistently, and at times she manages to make things more difficult for herself, we get to understand her and root for her. She has had to make herself strong and mistrusts everybody for very good reasons. She is different to the rest of the characters in the novel and in Orchard Hill, and it is not surprising that Billy Ray sets his eyes on her. She is a modern woman who knows her own mind and is prepared to do whatever it takes to make her dreams come true.

Billy Ray feels very old-fashioned, perhaps even more because he falls for Lizzie, and the contrast between the opinions and behaviours of the two could not be more extreme, at least at first sight. Billy Ray is the preacher’s son of the title, and although we might be familiar with stories about the children of preachers rebelling against their strict religious upbringing (Footloose, for instance), he is a chip off the old block. I wondered if Billy Ray is not, in fact, even more morally upright and a stricter follower of the spirit of the Bible than his father is. He is a thoroughly good man (he struggles at times and is not perfect, but he is one of the genuinely good guys), and although he is young and naïve at the beginning of the story, he has the heart in the right place and tries very hard to live up to Christian moral standards. He is a thinking man and the roller-coaster of his emotions and his doubts and hesitations reflect well his age. The roles between the two main characters challenge the standard stereotypes, and we have the good and innocent young man and the experienced woman who tempts him trying to send him down the wrong path, rather than the rogue going trying to steal the virtue of an innocent young woman. Of course, things are not that simple, and the relationship between the two main characters has many nuances, ups and downs, and despite what they might think, they need each other to become better versions of themselves.

The rest of the characters are given less space (this is a coming of age story, after all, and adults are not the centre of the book, although the relationship between Billy Ray and his father is beautifully rendered) but even the characters we don’t get to know that well (the rest of Lizzie’s family, the doctor, the midwife) are convincing and engaging. There are parallels between Billy Ray and Lizzie and some of the older characters as if they embodied what would have happened to them if they hadn’t found each other. It is evident that Billy Ray is focused on telling the story of his relationship with Lizzie and the book reflects the single-mindedness of his protagonist, as the affairs of society and the world at large only rarely get mentioned.

The rhythm of the novel is paused and contemplative and it feels like the summer months felt when we were young: eternal and full of possibilities. The turn of phrase and the voices of the different characters are distinct and help recreate the Southern atmosphere, adding a vivid local feel, and some humorous touches. After the summer we follow the character’s first few years at university and we see him become a man. I don’t want to go into detail, but I can tell you I really enjoyed the ending of the book, which is in keeping with the rest of the novel.

Although religion and the character’s beliefs are very important to the story’s plot (I am not an expert, so I cannot comment if this novel would fit into the category of Christian books, or if it would be considered too daring, although there is no explicit sex and I cannot recall any serious swearing), and the main character might appear old-fashioned and not a typical young man, for me, that is one of its assets. It does not feel like a modernised recreation of the past, but as if it truly had been written by somebody who was recording the important aspects of his long-gone youth.  I recommend it to readers keen on books full of atmosphere and centred on characters and relationships that differ from the norm. It is also a great book for people looking to recreate the feeling of the late 1950s and early 60s in a Southern small town.

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