NOWHERE BUT HOME. By Liza Palmer. William Morrow. 358 pages. $14.99
“Nowhere but Home” is the latest offering from Liza Palmer, bestselling author of the “chic-lit” favorite, “Conversations with the Fat Girl.” Though “Nowhere but Home” is a little darker and the heroine, a little older, Palmer once again gives us a quirky, smart, imperfect misfit trying to find her way in an unkind world.
Queen Elizabeth Wake, known as Queenie, was so named by her unwed teenage mother from the Texas Hill Country to give her social standing. You can guess how that turned out. When we meet Queenie she has lost another job as a chef — this time in NYC for yelling at a customer for putting ketchup on his eggs — and has nowhere to go but back to the place she fled broken-hearted years earlier.
While Thomas Wolfe’s memorable pariah, George Webber, may have found that you can’t go back home “to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time,” things have not changed much in Queenie Wake’s hometown of North Star, Texas.
Queenie’s sister, Merry Carole is working in town as a hairdresser, valiantly trying to live down her unfair reputation as a promiscuous gold-digger while singly bringing up her son Cal who is about to be named North Star High School Stallions’ quarterback. The sisters’ nemeses, the once high school mean girls, are also still in town, as is Everett, Queenie’s old boyfriend who dumped her to marry a mean girl, a marriage that lasted only one year. Now, Everett lives alone at his horse ranch in the hills, secrets still intact, still in love with Queenie. Cue the Ed Bruce music: “Cowboys ain’t easy to love and they’re harder to hold.”
These characters and back story would make a running start for most successful novels in the “chic lit” genre which relies on light, romantic comedy situations, but in “Nowhere but Home,” Palmer deals us a darker element. Queenie and Merry Carole’s mother passed, but she lives on in the town’s collective memory as that cold-hearted, man-stealer, shot to death by a once best friend who now awaits death in a nearby prison.
Given her history, Queenie gets a startling and bizarre job as a death row chef in Shine Prison making last meals, doing most of the prep work — like smoking barbeque — at Merry Carole’s house. You can see where this is going, and that woefully predictable trajectory towards a death house encounter between Queenie and her mother’s murderer might nearly cause one to stop reading.
But Palmer’s deft prose and snappy dialogue pull the reader back, and Palmer’s characters, too, are worth your time: Queenie, outwardly cheeky, but skittish, and Merry Carole, circumspect, but forgiving. Both broken. Both slowly discovering real happiness may be possible no matter what your childhood: “Celebrating Cal felt great. For once, I let happiness just live and didn’t allow the stench of North Star’s disapproval. As I sip my champagne, I realize I might like to try that a bit more in the future.”
“Nowhere but Home” is about family, friends and past loves. It’s also about Texas food, Texas football and the irrepressible hope of second chances. As Thomas Wolfe said: “Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same.”
Reviewer Virginia Friedman is a writer and filmmaker from Charleston.