The Bequest of Big Daddy by Jo-Ann Costa
Author: Jo-Ann Costa
Genre: Fiction (Southern / Gothic / Family Saga / 19th Century / 20th Century / Civil War / Post-Civil War / Alabama / Anti-Hero / Skeletons in the Closet)
Publisher/Publication Date: Koehler Books (4/1/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: Okay to liked. (Although, having finished my review, am nudging more closely to liked!)
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: A young woman delves into her family's complicated past when she seeks out the truth of her great-grandfather and her family's connection to her ancestral home.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: It's fine, although with that little girl, I thought there'd be some kind of abuse, but this novel had a different kind of violence to it.
First line: As I understand it, Big Daddy was born that way, unable to help himself when he acted ugly and equally unable to recognize right from wrong.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you like good, tangled Southern gothic. This isn't V.C. Andrew's type family drama; more Truman Capote, perhaps, meets Elmore Leonard.
Why did I get this book?: I like Gothic-y Southern fiction.
Review: Spanning 1843 through 1981, this novel follows the Janson family, through Jo-Dee Janson Cipriano (a fictional take on the author, Jo-Ann Costa, I presume), a young woman fascinated by her great-grandfather, Big Daddy -- Horatio 'Ratio' Gage Janson. Rude, unruly, wild, downright 'randy' (according to her mother), Jo-Dee knows Big Daddy only as a wizened old man on the verge of death. His passing prompts her to seek out the truth of his story, propelled by a curiosity to know just how bad, how wild, and how randy he really was.
In proper gothic tradition, the circumstances of Big Daddy's birth are shrouded in secrecy and lies. His mother, the stunningly gorgeous and staggeringly selfish Mina Satterley is a Southern belle forced into exile from her family's plantation with the arrival of the Civil War. Her husband, sweet Clay Man Janson, besotted with her since a boy, has become a soldier and is presumed dead, unloved by Mina and unknown by Ratio. Mina has taken up with an Alabama senator for her keep, a man who loathes Ratio but offers employment to keep the boy out of trouble. Charmed, perhaps, with a good luck amulet from a childhood incident with the circus, Ratio manages well -- but still gets himself into trouble with the surety of a compass finding north.
Some of the characters -- Ratio primary -- are hard to like. They're cruel, mean, rude, ignorant, violent, selfish -- but they are fascinating. Like a car accident or a sordid argument, you can't look away -- and really, why look away?
Costa has a sharp sense of her characters and the appeal of a sordid, tangled drama, but I occasionally found the writing clunky. I preferred the historical sections as the more contemporary ones rang a tad awkward. I also have to confess that the use of dialect in dialogue was off-putting and distracting for me; I appreciate the desire to indicate a different style of speaking, but as all her white Southern characters speak grammatically correct English, it was noticeable that the slaves and freed people of color all spoke something more muddled and broken.
Still, there's a lovely kind of spoken rhythm to the story -- mimicking in some ways the storytelling that we see happen in the book, as happens at the Janson's reunion in 1981, relatives replaying and rehashing their shared familial memory -- and the reader is invited into that circle. If you like tawdry Southern family drama that steers toward Capote-meets-Leonard rather than V.C. Andrews, this is your book.
*** *** ***
I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Bequest of Big Daddy to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 5/10.