Love and tragedy
Spare change – Bette Lee Crosby
Heralding from the southern United States, Bette Lee Crosby fell in love with fiction at a very early age. For Crosby, the step towards becoming a writer was an obvious one. ‘Storytelling is my blood,’ she says, and describes her mother as a ‘captivating storyteller.’ She recounts using bits and pieces of her southern mother’s voice in almost all of her writing, a trait for which she is well known and much admired. Crosby first entered the international publishing scene in 2006 when she received the National League of American Pen Women Award for one of her unpublished manuscripts. Since her debut novel, Cracks in the Sidewalk, was released in 2009, she has gone on to publish six further novels, including USA Today bestseller Spare Change in 2011.
In Spare Change Crosby exceptionally executes the multi strand narrative, telling the tale of two very distinct characters, whose storylines unexpectedly become one. Olivia Ann Westerly has her life well and truly figured out, stubborn and superstitious to the very core, she hates opals, loathes the number 11 and sees children as a weight that crushes a woman’s soul. That’s why, despite being well into her thirties, she continues to dismiss any proposals of marriage. Her life is simple, until she meets Charlie Doyle, a man with blue eyes and a lopsided smile which finally captures her heart. When Olivia allows herself to become absorbed by her love, ignoring the bad omen brought by the unexpected gifting of an opal necklace, her honeymoon period ends abruptly and with devastating results. Leaving her once more alone, with none of the independence she once so coveted. Meanwhile Ethan Allan Doyle has been born into an underprivileged home, to an abusive father, and a mother with dreams of running away to New York City to pursue a music career. Having grown up in a less than conventional household with a mother and father with their fair share of secrets, Ethan Allen knows better than to go shooting his mouth off. As a result, when he bears witness to a gruesome incident, which leaves both his parents dead, he knows he needs to run before the man responsible catches up to him. Lost and without a hope in the world, Olivia and Ethan Allen’s lives may seem miles apart, but they are about to get to know each other a whole lot better.
This was my first experience of reading Crosby’s work, and I have to say that I was not disappointed. I really appreciated the southern flair in her style. The language is second to none and gives a real twist to the text. I found myself inadvertently reading pretty much the entire book with a southern accent. The use of the southern dialect sets the perfect scene for the book, and it’s not just the speech which has this amazing southern feel, the whole book reads like a passage of speech from the Grapes of Wrath:
‘The year Ethan Allen became eleven was when things between Benjamin and Susanna turned rancid as a week old pork chop.’
I challenge anyone to get through the whole novel without inadvertently donning an internal Scarlet O’Hara-esque persona on at least one occasion. Just try and say the words ‘leastwise’ or ‘elsewise’ with anything other than a southern drawl, I’m sure it can’t be done. This aspect of Crosby’s work is something for which she is well known and liked, and it’s evident from reading the book just why this is.
Crosby’s narrative is interlaced with passages of italicised text which serve as the internal monologues of some of the main characters. These short passages allow the reader an insight into the inner thoughts and workings of the characters. I found these openings to be the place where the most of the language came out, especially with Ethan Allen, whose character was less likely to have lengthy passages of speech within the storyline itself. From his expressions and thoughts I developed a very clear image of the boy in my mind – street wise, small, dirty, and foul mouthed. I can imagine him as being a bit of a Huckleberry Finn type character. Olivia’s monologue also lent me a clear view of her personality, her written word painted such a clear picture that I felt as though I could reach out and touch her. She seems to be quite the quintessential southern belle: much sought after, but never captured.
The individual stories of Ethan Allen and Olivia are sure to tug on the heart strings of all that read them. Both characters have such tragic stories; blessed by love, but plagued by loss. The relationship between Ethan Allen and his mother may be unconventional, but it uniquely charming and adorable in its own way. His evident despair and anger at having lost his mother is truly heart-breaking. Meanwhile, Olivia’s relationship with Charlie is nothing short of perfect from the very start, but is so much shorter than anyone could ever expect. The brutality the situation is overwhelming, and is epitomised in the words that Olivia uses to describe her grief:
‘The bits and pieces of Charlie are like a bouquet of roses. I look at them and see a world of sweetness and beauty, but when I try to hold onto them the thorns rip me to pieces.’
It is the tragedy of each character’s past which makes the unexpected relationship which blossoms between the two of them all the more rewarding.
Another aspect of the book, I would like to go into is the past that Ethan Allen is running from, but I’m wary of unleashing too many spoilers, so I’ll keep this short. Needless to say, Ethan Allen’s troubles are not over when he meets with Olivia; in fact they’re really just beginning. A shadow of the past is following Ethan, threatening to take the only thing he has left – his life. It is the prospect of his past catching up with him which ultimately brings Olivia and Ethan Allen closer together. As it becomes apparent that his troubles are not just going to disappear Ethan realises he has to trust Olivia, which means telling the truth about what he saw the day his parents died.
On the whole I found Spare Change to be a satisfying read, and I would definitely consider reading more of Crosby’s work. The only thing I felt I could have done without is the final chapter; I think that introducing a spiritual aspect to the novel at the last minute was unnecessary. That said, as it is the final chapter wasn’t too perturbed by it. The relationship between Olivia and Ethan Allen is enchanting and really heart-warming, but the storyline itself manages to stand out and is not too flowery. Crosby’s style is easy and fun to read, serving as an eclectic mix of southern flair, tragedy, crime and love which really expresses the best of human nature.
Many thanks to Bette Lee Crosby and Bent Pine Publishing for supplying me with a free review copy of the book.