I picked up Fannie Flagg’s I Still Dream About You at random from the local Barnes & Noble, trying to give Flagg another try. Her most famous book, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café is one of my favorite novels, and the 1991 film is hilarious and heart-warming and I make it a point to watch it whenever I catch it on basic TV (it also started my love affair with Mary Louise Parker).
But after Fried Green Tomatoes, I’ve tried reading Flagg’s other works and have had trouble getting through them. I picked up I Still Dream About You because of the blurbs on the cover that called the novel a hilarious comic murder mystery. While a fitfully engaging story, the novel will still be a disappointment to those who remember Flagg’s comedic masterpiece. She takes on the theme of suicide, not a subject usually associated with comedy, but Flagg’s penchant for dark humor is a comfortable fit for these more serious topics (Fried Green Tomatoes fans will remember the macabre gags played for laughs). It’s not her attempt at creating comedy from suicide that is the problem with I Still Dream About You, it’s that she doesn’t make the story nearly funny or compelling enough for her readers.
The protagonist is Maggie Fortenberry, a former beauty queen who is a Birmingham real estate agent, who wants to commit suicide. She’s not miserable, nor does she have a terrible life – it’s just that her life isn’t what she imagined it to be. She doesn’t want to live a life of disappointment, so she thoughtfully planned out a clean suicide, but her plans are continuously interrupted and she has to repeatedly push back her decision when life around her keeps intruding.
Those familiar with Flagg will recognize consistent elements with her other stories – namely, quirky Southern characters, deep female friendships, as well as, flashbacks to give the story context. Maggie and her best friend Brenda are partners in crime of sorts, trying to maintain their real estate business, despite the ongoing threat of a shark-like competitor. While Maggie is facing her self-imposed mortality, Brenda is battling her weight and a busy-body sister who likes to boss her around. The office also has a crusty old receptionist who likes to spout off quippy one-liners that bemoan the state of the world today – she’s a reactionary conservative, the story who believes there’s a “real” America and a “fake one, but Flagg avoids making her a villain by reducing the character into an adorable cartoon – one of the many colorful Southern people that populate Flagg’s fictional worlds. At time the broad dialogue feels like an episode of Designing Women.
Because Birmingham has such a storied and painful history, the characters all make at least passing glances towards its violent past. The Civil Rights Movement works on the peripheral, but Flagg sounds tone deaf when writing about it. She also struggles when writing for Brenda, the novel’s most important black character. She wisely doesn’t make her race a major point, introducing it rather casually, but then clumsily gives Brenda a background that is bound by the Civil Rights Movement. And as the novel is set in 2008, Barack Obama’s victory also gives the character some space to cheer on the social progress the election represents. While Flagg’s treatment of black people and the 1960s isn’t as egregious as Kathleen Stockett’s 2008 novel The Help, she does go through great pains to remind readers that despite the beatings, and fire hose attacks, there was a lot of hand-wringing over the violence, as well. It’s always dicey when white writers take on race topics, and though Flagg isn’t the worst offender, she doesn’t avoid the pitfalls inherent in the practice.
But that’s not the only problem with I Still Dream About You. The issues I raised earlier wouldn’t torpedo the novel if it was the hilarious comedy that the blurbs promise its readers. But save for a few passages, there are a lot of dull moments when very little happens – and there is quite a bit of exposition where the readers have to suffer through some mundane activities such as Brenda trying to sneak a pint of ice cream in her purse, or Maggie and Brenda going to a disappointing performance of some whirling dervishes. And the flashbacks don’t always work, slowing down the momentum of an already pokey story.
And if all these problems weren’t bad enough, her ending is so pat and squeaky clean, that any credibility in the story’s dramatic progression all but collapse. It’s a gooey, sugary ending that is shocking in its wish-fulfillment – and unfortunately, the characters aren’t nearly endearing or compelling enough to sustain such a neat ending.