Poor Maggie Fortenberry. How could she have known it would be so hard to commit suicide? Of course, if you’re a former Miss Alabama, and you’re determined to do away with yourself with as little attention and mess as possible, you have quite a bit of planning to do. And plans can go wrong — much like most of Maggie’s life.
A suicide attempt might not seem like the best foundation for a comic novel, but in Fannie Flagg’s able hands, the ever-present humor in I Still Dream About You is neither mocking nor unsympathetic.
When she won the Miss Alabama title, Maggie believed her life going forward was pretty well mapped out. She would become Miss America — everyone said she would — and then, after whatever fame and fortune naturally followed, she would return to Birmingham, marry a suitable man, and raise their children in one of the mansions on Red Mountain that overlook the city. Maybe even one like Crestview, the house Maggie has idolized since childhood as the epitome of gracious Southern charm.
Instead she is facing old age single and childless. Until now, she has made a good living as a Realtor, but even her livelihood is threatened by the death of her mentor and the rise of an unscrupulous competitor, Babs “The Beast of Birmingham” Bingington. So there seems to be only one option.
Or maybe not. The universe — in the shape of Maggie’s friends, the city itself, and a well-timed coincidence or two — appears to believe that Maggie still has some living to do.
Maggie’s despair is real, but Flagg skillfully plays it against the dimwittedness of her colleagues, who just don’t understand how a still-pretty beauty queen can have real problems. Maggie tries to drop hints about her plan to her friend Brenda (providing fair warning is on Maggie’s list of things to do before the big event), but Brenda turns each conversation to her own major concern: her weight. There is something both funny and touching as Maggie switches effortlessly from hinting about her planned demise to giving a pep talk to her best friend.
Then there is the series of events that keeps Maggie from completing the plan, and they include everything from a performance of the Whirling Dervishes to an accident that involves an overly friendly goat. Each time Maggie is forced to postpone the big event, her life becomes ever more complicated, and the complications include finding a literal skeleton in the attic. “What was her life becoming?” Maggie wonders. “Just three days ago, she had stolen a dead body and lied to the police, and she had just shamelessly bribed an innocent child. Once you took that first criminal step, it was all downhill from there.”
Fannie Flagg is, of course, the author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, and her Southern credentials are rock solid. In I Still Dream About You, she moves past stereotypical small-town characters and takes on Southern life in the big city.
In fact, Birmingham, its past and present, is a central character here: Flagg presents the city in all its glory and all its flaws, from its beginning as an iron town built by aspiring immigrants “determined to build something in America to match or surpass” grand European cities like London, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. In Flagg’s imagining, Angus Crocker is one such 19th-century industrialist who builds Crestview, the house Maggie loves so much. But dreams are always fulfilled at a cost, and Angus’ story will become part of Maggie’s as well.
Some readers may find the ending of I Still Dream About You a bit too pat, a bit too easy. But the real point of this novel is not the way we end but how we live each day of the journey. Maggie Fortenberry wins our hearts because, despite the left turns her life has taken, she never sacrifices her own understanding of the person she is.
Fannie Flagg will discuss and sign I Still Dream About You at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Nashville at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 16.