Laurel McKelva Hand is indeed her father's daughter. Although she has escaped the South, the Southern way is still strong in her: both sustaining and stifling. She returns to New Orleans to be with her father through a difficult surgery and a disastrous convalescence that leads to his death. Laurel then accompanies her father's body home to the small town in Mississippi where he will be buried. There she is warmly welcomed into the sorority of her childhood friends (the "bridesmaids," who are ladies with names like Miss Tennyson Bullock) and gains some important insights into her parents' marriage and her own character.
From the outset Laurel is forced to cope with her father's second wife, a truly insufferable woman. Reading about Fay is like hearing nails on a chalkboard. Horrible as she is and much as I disliked her, Fay is far too real to be a caricature. I was entirely caught up in the story and in the climactic scene, I was very disappointed that Fay didn't get conked over the head with something. It might have ruined the story (or turned it into another kind of story altogether) but it would have felt so good!
This novel can be read as a journey novel, or a coming-of-age novel, or simply as a well-crafted tale of events in one Southern daughter's life. It is all these things, and somehow also more.
Excerpt (after the cemetery):
In the parlor, the fire had mercifully died out. Missouri and Miss Tennyson got all the chairs back into place in the two rooms here and the dining room, and the crowd of bridesmaids had succeeded among them in winding the clock on the mantel and setting the hands to the time--only ten minutes past noon--and starting the pendulum.
Miss Tennyson Bullock, from the dining room, gave out the great groan she always gave when a dish had been made exactly right; it was her own chicken mousse. She invited them in.
Fay stared at the spread table, where Miss Tennyson, Miss Adele, Tish, and some of the other bridesmaids were setting plates and platters around. . . . "I think things have gone off real well," said Fay.