Book Review: Under Magnolia, A Southern Memoir by Frances Mayes (37/99)

Under Magnolia

Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir
by Frances Mayes
Narrated by Frances Mayes
9 hours, 46 minutes

Anyone who has ever called the South home will likely identify with the people and recollections that Frances Mayes – born and raised in Fitzgerald, Georgia – serves up in Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir.

“Memory is capricious. I can look back and see decadence, old bigots, the constant racial slurs, the bores, the wild cards, the bighearted, the family album of alcoholics, the saints, the old aunt propped in a chair saying only “da-da,” the slow-motion suicides, but at four, six, ten, they loomed, powerful, not as types but as themselves. Among them, logic takes wing.” (pg. 31)

Many such characters appear in Under Magnolia as those who have shaped Ms. Mayes into the person she is today. She writes that “sometimes you have to travel back in time, skirting the obstacles, in order to love someone.”  Those of us who have had the gift of time and the occasion to reflect on certain experiences in our lives know how very true this can be.

When I read memoir, I’m looking for more than a life’s chronology or experience that transcends a good story. I look for some renewed understanding about that experience as a result of that process.  The real story isn’t what happened; the real story goes behind the images to have the memorist share what he or she has learned, how someone has changed as a result, (“Images are the pegs holding down memory’s billowing tent.”)

Under Magnolia is more chronology, a recollection of what happened, with the feel of autobiography.  Frances Mayes, who narrates the audiobook version (which I listened to) of Under Magnolia sounds like a lovely person with many stories and experiences from growing up in the South that have shaped her. But it’s hard to pinpoint the “takeaway” from these experiences. Is it that we really can always go home again? That we can’t truly leave because home is always with us? That change is possible? That despite our family history we have the strength in us to overcome issues like a parent’s alcoholism and devastating illness and societal expectations? All of the above?  I’m not quite sure.

Yet, there are parts of Under Magnolia where Ms. Mayes takes her reader on a journey with her back to her hometown, in a poetic yet rambling way.

“Growing up in Fitzgerald, I lived in an intense microcosm, where your neighbor knows what you’re going to do even before you do, where you can recognize a family gene pool by the lift of an eyebrow, or the length of a neck, or a way of walking. What is said, what is left to the imagination, what is denied, withheld, exaggerated-all these secretive, inverted things informed my childhood. Writing the stories that I found in the box, I remember being particularly fascinated by secrets kept in order to protect someone from who you are. That protection, sharpest knife in the drawer, I absorbed as naturally as a southern accent. At that time, I was curious to hold up to the light glimpses of the family that I had so efficiently fled. We were remote-back behind nowhere-when I was growing up, but even so, enormous social change was about to crumble foundations. Who were we, way far South? “We’re south of everywhere,” my mother used to lament.”

A gorgeous passage with so many fascinating questions to explore. Which may be the point — maybe finding out who we are and how place shapes us into the people we are isn’t a definitive process.  Maybe it is supposed to feel somewhat incomplete, a stream of conscious narrative in our lives.

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post 37 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. 




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