BY INVITATION ONLY. By Dorothea Benton Frank. William Morrow. 386 pages. $27.99.
In a June issue of The New York Times Book Review, Dorothea Benton Frank is quoted as saying, “I’m the one you want to sit next to when things are dull.”
Anyone who has any of her 18 novels knows this is true. Frank’s humor permeates the pages of all her books, including her latest novel, “By Invitation Only,” a story of a wedding, dueling mothers-in-law, haves and have-nots and family secrets. Frank says the novel was inspired by the recent marriages of her son and daughter, and by the potential for disaster when events don’t go as planned.
Two headstrong women are the drivers of this story; Diane English Stiftel, mother of the groom, and Susan Kennedy Cambria, mother of the bride. These two women are as different as their hometowns. Diane is a Southerner who manages a Lowcountry farm, while Susan is a wealthy woman from Chicago whose priorities are her art collection (Renoir and Degas), designer clothes and luxurious jewels.
The book opens with the two families meeting for the first time at an engagement “pig pickin’” party down South where Susan encounters boiled peanuts (“They’re wet!”) and pig cracklin’ for the first time. At times, the description of the party borders on hokey with details like a cow wandering through, leaving a pile of manure, which one of Susan’s friends, wearing her Chanel pumps, steps into. For someone as talented at writing humor, moments like these feel like a lazy grab at a laugh.
The engagement party in Chicago is, of course, vastly different. As she waits for guests to arrive, Susan muses about the $8,000-worth of dermatology work to hide the “waffling” on her chin, and opens her vault to remove a “pair of diamond earrings and a big diamond brooch.” A famous musician plays the piano as the staff passes champagne and caviar. Diane observes the party was “like being in a room of beautiful parrots or toucans, each one trying to outfluff the other bird’s colorful feathers.”
The novel unfolds with alternating points of view. Frank’s favoritism seems to lie with the Southerners, which is evident in her heartfelt descriptions of the farm. As Diane sets the Thanksgiving table with her family silver, she reminisces about the past. “This was the thing about family heirlooms: humble or grand, they made the past alive again. Whether it was a spoon or a locket, a shoehorn or an old Bible, when I held these objects in my hands, I could imagine my great-great-grandparents or someone’s ancestors going about their day.”
Mouthwatering descriptions of food — “a platter of tomato and Vidalia onion sandwiches” — deepen our appreciation of this charming family farm.
Fredrick and Shelby, the bride and groom to be, are shadowy figures, more the catalyst instead of the focus of the story. As their wedding draws near, Frank moves the story along with (sometimes needless) dialogue among the cast of characters. There is love and loss, power struggles between the MOB and the MOG and cringe-worthy scenes of wedding planning that makes the whole ordeal seem like something to be avoided at all cost. The wedding itself comes and goes so quickly, I wondered if I’d skipped a chapter.
A surprising twist in the final third of the book is strongly reminiscent of a semi-recent news story, and leads to an unexpected outcome. Frank neatly ties up the various plot lines, reasserting her idealized and charming version of the Lowcountry. Frank is funny and her characters, even the rich and spoiled ones, make good company.
Reviewer Amy Mercer is a writer in Charleston.