Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith is an epistolary novel consisting entirely of letters written by Ivy Rowe, starting around age 12 and chronologically going through her last years. The letters are sometimes humorous, sometimes harsh, full of gossip, and always heartfelt. They are written to a variety of people including family, friends, and one hoped-for pen pal. The most intimate letters are written to her institutionalized sister. The reader is not privy to anyone’s replies, so the entire viewpoint is from Ivy. The first letters are filled with misspelled words and local sayings. As Ivy matures, her spelling improves and the topics she discusses become more complex.
Ivy was born in the early 1900s and was one of many children in a loving family in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her father was a poor farmer who died young. The family gradually drifted apart. Ivy was a gifted storyteller and writer, but her chances of furthering her education were hindered first by her father’s illness and then later when Ivy becomes a teenaged unwed mother. She continues her storytelling through her letters, pouring heart and soul into each one.
Ivy lives during World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. For part of her life, she lived and worked in a mining town where the workers were in constant danger from the lack of safety protocols. Her beauty catches the eye of the mine superintendent’s free-wheeling son. But she marries a childhood friend and had several children and miscarriages during their long marriage.
Ivy is a complicated woman, full of emotions. Her life has lost opportunities but she takes great joy in her own children’s and grandchildren’s accomplishments. She longs to travel but always stays close to home. She questions God and refuses to be baptized. She makes scandalous mistakes but owns up to them. Above all, she lives and loves passionately. Ivy Rowe and her zest for life will stay with me for a long time.
5-Stars. I chose this for my book club’s July 2021 selection. I know Ivy will give us plenty to talk about. I am curious as to what the other members think of the novel’s title, which confuses me. The novel opens with a poem called Weep-Willow. There is a line that says “Come down among the willow shade and weep, you fair and tender ladies left to lie alone, the sheets so cold, the nights so long.” While the red-headed protagonist is fair-skinned, she is far from tender. And if Ivy was ever left alone, it was because she wanted to be alone.
I had both the Kindle book and the Audible book. I enjoyed reading Ivy’s writing with the misspellings and flourishes. I also enjoyed listening to the excellent narration while I was busy with several tasks. The eBook is 384 pages. The audio is 13 hours and 23 minutes.
PS I am excited that Katie and I will visit the Blue Ridge Mountains in September. We will hang out with my favorite author, Diane Kelly, for a long weekend. I know I will think of Ivy Rowe while I am there.