Half of What You Hear
A story of life in a small southern town as led by the people who live and love there, Kristyn Kusek Lewis’ Half of What You Hear is a decent story about the way bigotry unkind gossip and can effect generations.
Susannah – Cricket – Lane was raised staid, upper-class and southern, in old money and among the upper classes – but all of that’s gone, not that her eccentric, society-flouting self has ever given a fig about any of it. Instead of being a good society wife she became a notorious gossip columnist who burned a lot of bridges behind her. Her husband, controlling banking whiz Teddy, is long-dead, and Susannah and her sharp tongue persist in living in the way that suits her best – swathed in pink and diamonds, like Elizabeth Taylor’s distant cousin. But when she’s forced to leave New York and return to her hometown, no one in Greyhill, Virginia, is willing to give her a the benefit of the doubt over something she may or may not have done to her best friend years ago.
Bess Warner stands where Susannah stood. A former White House staffer who screwed up big-time when her critical remarks about the First Lady were caught by a stray microphone, her hopes for an easier life in Greyhill are quickly dashed. While her husband, lawyer and political hopeful Cole, grew up there and understands how life in the town works, Bess is having a hard time adjusting to the slower pace. Taking over the Greyhill Inn, which has been in Cole’s family for generations, Bess has to contend with her mother-in-law Diane’s constant hectoring, the gossip of the locals, the pressure of learning on the job, and the inability of her daughter, Livvie, to acclimate to the social scene of her school. When Bess is offered the opportunity to write an article about Susannah for the Washington Post, she jumps at the chance to assert some kind of control over her life.
That’s when Susannah meets Bess, and when Susannah – part chatty magpie, part poisoned quill-tip, all original raconteur – starts initiating Bess into the mysteries and old scandals of life in Greyhill. That Susannah was once in love with Bess’ father-in-law Bradley is just the tip of the iceberg. The deeper Bess digs into the past, the more she learns about what’s really lurking behind the titters and society luncheons, behind the rumors about her marriage, and Cole’s connection to his old girlfriend, Eva. Bess will have to choose between perpetuating the comfortable lies that have mired the family in the past for so long, or standing up to her mother-in-law, taking control of the inn, demanding the support she deserves from her husband, supporting her daughter’s move toward independence, and shaking the ghosts out of the magnolia trees for once and for all.
Half of What You Hear is a solidly good slice of women’s fiction about the complexity of gossip and rumor, and how the pursuit of popularity can warp a person’s values. The theme of eavesdropping, of overhearing what you ought not, runs throughout the novel and is handled excellently.
Susannah and Bess, the two opposing poles of our narrative, provide quite different points of view. Susannah is more languid and immature; Bess is more forceful and driven. Both are bound by the painful weight of the past and what secrets can do to a person. The narrative throws a lot of little curveballs into the mystery, and the added contemporary story of Livvie’s struggle to fit into the popular clique at her school versus her relationship with fellow outcast Lauren is decent and feels drawn from life. The problem with that plot, though, is that Livvie’s twin brother Max feels poorly delineated and carries little narrative weight.
The novel is decent overall – decently wrought, decently written, and comprised of some decent characters that provide some good entertainment. The complex knot that connects Bess to Susannah, Bess to Eva, and Livvie to Eva’s daughter Lauren, is one that only happens in tiny close-knit southern towns – mostly, to be fair, southern towns in novels. Half of What You Hear combines some very true, very realistic observations and gossip with a typically soapy plot – and ultimately that turns in its favor. However, when it comes down to it, it’s a decent read, just not an especially memorable one.