The story in How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly by Connie May Fowler is as overwrought as its heroine is earthbound. It's a testament to Fowler's flair with characters and setting that the plot can be forgiven and the heroine, skyborne. Clarissa Burden is a poor fish, albeit a best-selling author. She is a victim, willing to put up with unbelievably rotten behavior by her Afrikaner husband while also suffering from vivid memories of the childhood abuse wreaked by her South Florida trailer park mother. Clarissa lives in a house inhabited by the ghosts of three victims of a brutal lynching, not far from the forgotten cemetery of abused women. Suffering through the hottest day in the history of Hope, Florida, Clarissa must finally break through the combined histories of victimization (there are at least four and I'm not counting the prescient fly swatted into oblivion by Clarissa or the bird she hits with her car and then buries ceremoniously or the dwarves relegated to a carny life by virtue of their stature) and learn how to fly.
By the end of the day, will Clarissa find liberation of self, of expression (did I mention the best-selling author is suffering from writer's block?), and of the ties that bind (mother, husband, very bad teeth as a child). She will fly but only through the intervention of a sexy young writer who assures her she is beautiful, the empowerment gained through buying a muscle car, and her easy access to a single-shot rifle. Are you kidding me? Does female empowerment come from guys, cars, and guns?
How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly is a mush of genres (ghost story, love story, empowerment tract, car manual). But it is a lush, ripe, heated, fragrant, and very often pleasurable mush. I knew whom to hate and whom to root for; I relished the hot sun and the cool air conditioning; I had fun with the hot young dudes and charming older dudes winking at Clarissa while she admired their butts; and I always enjoy a little history. Fowler provides history in the background story of a Spanish woman and her Black husband who lose all their rights and freedoms when Florida passes from Spanish control to U.S. governance in the early 1800s. Is the history embellished? I don't know but I will head out and do my own research now. I won't be as lucky as Clarissa who found everything she needed to know right there in a folder on her desk and who filled in the blank spaces with her own imaginings that added gratuitous violence and greater righteousness to an already jam-packed novel.
Kudos to Fowler for her imagination and her imagery. I knew exactly where I was with the landscape details and the weather reminders; I had no problem picturing Clarissa and her men and the nude models cavorting in her back yard (one of her husband's foibles) and the pet rattlesnake slithering across the road. Remove the choking kudzu of overdoing everything - there is just too much of a lot - and I could even find the endearing (if not particularly empowering) story of a woman trying to help herself, finally, by learning to fly.
Follow Nina Sankovitch on Twitter: www.twitter.com/readallday