Date Published: August 2, 2011
Publisher: Broadway Paperbacks
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 5 out of 5
Book Summary: Nobody in Nashville has a bigger name to live up to than Bezellia Grove. As a Grove, she belongs to one of city’s most prominent families and is expected to embrace her position in high society. That means speaking fluent French, dancing at cotillions with boys from other important families, and mastering the art of the perfect smile.
Also looming large is her given name Bezellia, which has been passed down for generations to the first daughter born to the eldest Grove. The others in the long line of Bezellias shortened the ancestral name to Bee, Zee or Zell. But Bezellia refuses all nicknames and dreams that one day she, too, will be remembered for her original namesake’s courage and passion.
Though she leads a life of privilege, being a Grove is far from easy. Her mother hides her drinking but her alcoholism is hardly a secret. Her father, who spends long hours at work, is distant and inaccessible. For as long as she can remember, she’s been raised by Maizelle, the nanny, and Nathaniel, the handyman. To Bezellia, Maizelle and Nathaniel are cherished family members. To her parents, they will never be more than servants.
Relationships are complicated in 1960s Nashville, where society remains neatly ordered by class, status and skin color. Black servants aren’t supposed to eat at the same table as their white employers. Black boys aren’t supposed to make conversation with white girls. And they certainly aren’t supposed to fall in love. When Bezellia has a clandestine affair with Nathaniel’s son, Samuel, their romance is met with anger and fear from both families. In a time and place where rebelling against the rules carries a steep price, Bezellia Grove must decide which of her names will be the one that defines her
My Thoughts: I loved The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove. Susan Gregg Gilmore has written a poignant, funny and wonderful novel about growing up and figuring out who you are. The star of this book, without a doubt, is her main character and narrator Bezellia Louise Grove. Bezellia is an authentic, passionate and remarkable young woman growing up in Nashville in the ’60s, trying to figure out who she is and what life is all about. The Grove Family is one of the oldest families in Nashville, a fact Bezellia’s mother, Elizabeth, never tires of talking about since social standing of the utmost importance to her (never mind she‘s a Grove by marriage only). An affluent lifestyle was also of great importance to Bezellia’s mother. She made sure her family lived in accord with their social standing. Elizabeth spends most of her time pruning her roses, drinking gin tonics all afternoon through the night and trying to reach the top of the social ladder.
Bezellia’s earliest memories include being cared for, bathed and fed by “dark skinned” people not by her mother. She's felt her mother's lack of love in several other ways, too. Bezellia’s mother detests the name Bezellia, refusing to call Bezellia by her name, calling her “Sister” instead, a moniker that “summed up her distaste for my name and her inadequate affection for me”. Elizabeth didn't consider it important to care for Bezellia or her younger sister, Adelaide or show them love. Bezellia desperately wanted to be loved by her mother. Bezellia believed for many years that it was her fault her mother didn’t love her so she tried to please her mother and thereby gain her love. When she's 14, for example, Bezellia offered to ‘babysit’ Adelaide the entire summer believing her mother might “love her a little more”.
Bezellia’s mother didn’t act as if she loved Bezellia’s father, Charles, either. He was a doctor and a quiet, distant man who spent more time at the hospital than at home. Bezellia knew her father loved her but she didn’t know him very well. Bezellia and Adelaide get the love and security they deserve from their parents with Maizelle, the family’s cook and housekeeper and Nathaniel, the man who took care of Grove Hill and anything else Elizabeth demanded. Bezellia loved Maizelle and Nathaniel like they were family. Maizelle and especially Nathaniel are terrific characters and, after Bezellia, my favorite people in this book. It upset her to no end the way her mother disrespected them. Bezellia was just a little girl when she understood that no white man would tolerate Elizabeth speaking to them the way she did to Nathaniel. Elizabeth’s rudeness was compounded in late afternoons by the gin & tonics she drank until passing out late at night. Alcohol made Elizabeth nasty.
Her parents dysfunction, her mother’s selfish, mean disposition and her lack of love might be expected to cause Bezellia to be quiet, withdrawn and sullen. Bezellia, though, was a strong, outgoing, vibrant young woman with an agile, intelligent mind who was interested in the world and other people and had a lot of love to give. No matter how mean her mother was to Bezellia and the people she loved, Bezellia embraced life. Her cousin Cornelia, three years older than Bezellia was her great friend and confidante. Cornelia taught her about boys and the fun side of life. The scenes with Bezellia and Cornelia are some of the more amusing, humorous scenes in this book. Bezellia’s Uncle Thad (Cornelia’s father) is another terrific secondary character who offers Bezellia the love and support she needs.
Growing up is rarely without its difficulties. A tragic accident in the family deeply effects everyone and will haunt Bezellia for years. An ill-conceived romance, strongly discouraged even by the people Bezellia depends on and loves, opens her eyes to the issues and problems of racism. But the heart wants what it wants and this relationship will cause Bezellia to feel great joy and terrible sadness as she tries to figure out what to do. Bezellia strongly disagrees with southern society’s rigid idea that one’s place in the social hierarchy is predicated on an individual’s class, status and skin color long before anything changes in this area.
Bezellia, possessed of an open and curious mind, is a little ahead of her time in other areas, too and not simply because she was been born in the south. When she goes away to college, for instance, she will also learn about women’s liberation issues and the fight for equality. She gets involved with an organization promoting women's rights while at college but problems at home, such as her mother's mental health, require Bezellia's attention. Still, Bezellia returns home a different young woman than the one who left. In a way, she understands her mother better and feels for her but she’s also irritated by her mother’s close-minded, childish behavior. It’s a tremendous shock for Bezellia when she learns some surprising secrets about her mother’s past. When she recovers from the shock, though, Bezellia sees her mother differently and understands that her mother has been deeply troubled and unhappy for most of her life.
I felt so many different emotions while reading this amazing book. I cried for Bezellia, cheered for her, was aggravated by her and amused by her. Ms. Gilmore has done a tremendous job reminding us what a difficult, bizarre, scary and wonderful experience it is growing up. She also made me think how interesting it probably was for women growing up in the ‘60s when so much was changing in our country, albeit slowly. Ms. Gilmore’s writing is lyrical and drew me into The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove and Bezellia’s life that captured my attention in chapter one and kept me reading into the early hours of the morning. She covers important and weighty themes including racism, families, love, addiction, women's rights and social status. She has an innate understanding of young women and how it feels to navigate all the highs and lows of growing up which is clearly depicted through Bezellia's character. Ms. Gilmore also impressed and inspired me through Bezellia's courage to express thoughts and beliefs in the areas of race, women's rights, mental health and more. I highly recommend this book. If you don’t read it, you’re missing out on an extra-special novel.
Thank you to Heather of Raging Bibliomania for hosting the giveaway of that I won. Please see Heather’s wonderful review of this book