The Empty Nesters
The Empty Nesters is a very good Carolyn Brown novel. Combining her usual formula of close female friends, small town southern living, tough older women and lightly embroidering the ambrosia with faith-based inspirational talk and gentle romance, this time she throws in a road trip on top, producing an intoxicating cocktail of fun.
Military vet Smokey and his wife Tootsie have seen a lot of families come and go from the three houses sitting across the street from their Sugar Run, Texas home. One hot July afternoon, however, luck strikes as army wives Diana, Carmen and Joanie move in with their daughters and their usually deployed elsewhere husbands. Friendships are forged, and a sisterhood quickly forms between the four women.
Thirteen years of convivial closeness pass by, but time, as always, has its way with these four families. First of all, three of the daughters enlist in the military together just four months after they graduate high school. That stress had been hard enough on their mothers, but then Carmen’s husband Eli chooses to serve her with divorce papers on the same day their daughter ships out for basic training. In the middle of getting a teaching degree and working to make ends meet at home, Carmen refuses to accept Eli’s request at face value while he demands and pressures her long-distance. Her friends support her heartily; Diana is still single after being dumped for another woman by her husband years before, and Joanie’s taciturn husband Brett, still deployed, feels as distant from her as the desert from the North Pole as she struggles with defining herself as a woman without her daughter. All three of Tootsie’s girls are at loose ends and Tootsie – dealing with the recent death of Smokey – decides that getting out of dodge with her brand new motorhome for a visit to Scrap, Texas, is just what the doctor ordered. Knowing her three adopted daughters need their own escape, Tootsie asks them to join her. With Smokey’s handsome computer geek nephew Luke behind the wheel, certainly nothing can go wrong – can it?
Well, of course there are some bumps. As Joanie and Brett argue long-distance about whether to support Eli or Carmen in the divorce, Joanie struggles for independence while trying not to lose her love for Brett. Diana and Luke embark on a tentative romance complicated by a seven year age difference, and Carmen tries to puzzle out the reason behind Eli’s demand for an expedited divorce. All the while, tough Tootsie tries to fight for space to mourn Smokey, hangs out with old friends and tries to figure out what her next step is without surrendering her indomitable spirit. When she must bury an old friend, the three girls step up to help her. But what will they do when an announcement threatens to tear them apart?
Well, they’ll endure, as Brown’s steel magnolias so often do. The Empty Nesters mainly works because of the very strong and very realistic relationships between its four main heroines. Brown has finally figured out the trick to writing a four way split PoV, something that eluded her in her two previous novels but here works well. Here, Tootsie and her girls have the kind of relationship that many a reader can only dream of. This helps smooth over the rougher, cheesier passages of the story.
Among the three women, Carmen has the most interesting subplot as she struggles with Eli’s stubborn wish to be divorced from her and goes through a grieving process for their life together. She was easy to relate to. I liked Joanie’s struggle to adjust to an empty nest and to express her own opinions; her relationship with Brett added a nice ballast against the bitterness of Carmen’s divorce plot. And Diana and Luke are perfectly decent people falling in love in spite of their messy pasts.
Most compelling of all is Tootsie, who’s tough as old boots but haunted by the deaths that have surrounded her recently. She finds renewal in small animals, young friends and good food, as one might or should in her position. Each character is fully fleshed out, and all four women carry a decent amount of narrative weight.
The book’s biggest flaw is its corn factor, which can sometimes fall into patterns of too easy platitudes and sloganeering. Occasionally Diana will have a mental chat with her mother’s ghost and Tootsie will mentally converse with Smokey, something everyone who’s lost a loved one has done, but which still feels a little clunky and corny sometimes. But that didn’t bother me as much as it might have, because the general lightness of the prose keeps the story flowing well.
And flow is exactly what this book does. The Empty Nesters is as easy to swim through as a pool warmed by summer sunshine, and it’s perfect for a lazy summer afternoon by the pool with a cool glass of wine and the summer breeze blowing through your hair.