Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Camptown Ladies by Mari SanGiovanni

Book:  Camptown Ladies
Author:  Mari SanGiovanni
Publisher:  Bywater Books

Back in the day, my Grandfather was a farmer––at least I think he was.

By the summer of 1974, he tended to spend the better part of his waking hours nursing a sweating Falstaff at the Sass & Poss Tavern on Main Street in New Harmony.  With my grandmother gone, it didn’t take his four daughters long to realize that he wasn’t particularly capable of taking care of himself.  So, after an epic, four-way Rock-Paper-Scissors match, Herdis came to live with my family.

As a 7-year old, it was pretty cool having your grandpa living with you––we’d fish in the pond behind the house, disassemble functioning electronics and fail to put them back together in any semblance of working order, and drive his unlicensed, beige ’64 Ford Fairlane up and down the dirt road at high speeds.

Sadly though, by the time I reached my teenage years, Herdis was progressively loosing his tenuous grasp on reality.  As a result, my parents and I spent an inordinate amount of time either searching for him among the surrounding fields and forests or picking the lock on the bathroom door to get him out.  Surprisingly, things didn’t seem that bad at the time, and since we lived in the middle of nowhere, his somewhat eclectic and unusual behavior became routine for us. 

Not so much for Alice.

You see, my good friend, Alice, who is two years older than me, often drove out to the farm in her new Pontiac Firebird to pick me up for volleyball, basketball, and softball practices. Since we lived at the end of a dirt road, it was impossible to miss someone driving down the lane––there would be an unmistakable rooster tail of dirt rising a hundred feet into the air and trailing for the better part of three quarters of a mile. 

Somehow Herdis missed it.  Every time. 

And, as Alice would drive up to the house, windows down, blasting John Denver’s Greatest Hits, Herdis would be standing on the front porch, pissing on the red geraniums.

Every time.

Still, no matter how traumatic that was––Alice is still in therapy––I’d zip him up, send him back into the house, hose off the geraniums, and go on to practice somehow knowing that you only have one chance to do right by family.

In Camptown Ladies, the eagerly awaited sequel to Mari SanGiovanni’s 2007 debut Greetings from Jamaica, Wish You Were Queer, readers once again meet Marie Santora and her large, loud, proud, and predictably unpredictable Italian family.  Marie has been dumped by Lorn, her famous girlfriend, and fired by her friend and potential sister-in-law, Erica.  Of course, Erica has also recently dumped brother Vince.  Nursing broken hearts, both siblings fly off to Rhode Island to reluctantly help sister Lisa turn a rundown campground into an upscale vacation destination for gays, lesbians, and fun-seeking, open-minded campers of all sexual preferences. 

Lisa, who is a force of nature, has more up her sleeve than renovating a campground.  Besides failing to mention to her parents and aunt and uncle that the campground will be marketed to gays and lesbians, she forgets to tell Vince and Marie that she’s hired Erica to oversee the renovation project, which includes a five-star Italian restaurant.  The thing is, the campground starts to take shape, and Vince and Marie find that working with Erica isn’t that bad––most of the time.  In fact, Marie and Erica begin to rebuild their relationship.

But, Vince is still torn over losing Erica, and Marie’s emotions are tossed into a blender on full Frappe when she learns that Erica broke up with Vince because she’s in love with her.  Between sibling angst, broken hearts, torrential rain, and sagging roof trusses, the Santora’s are tested time and again to see if Family is truly thicker than tomato gravy.

Camptown Ladies comes out of the blocks a bit slow, but picks up speed as soon as Marie arrives at the campground.  The cast of characters is memorable and loveable, and the story is chock-full of laugh out loud antics.  Marie is self-deprecating, sweet, and sensitive, quite the opposite of her ball-buster sister Lisa, while Vince is a softer version of a guy’s guy.  Mom is wound up a bit too tight, and someone needs to regulate dad’s daily intake of the Vay-jay-jay.  Erica is every dyke’s dream woman, and Uncle Freddie steals the show as the most well written, multi-dimensional character in the novel.

As a reader, I found myself wishing for more in-depth scenes with Lisa.  She’s funny, clever, sarcastic, quick, and takes no prisoners.  However, her appearances, outside of the trip to visit Officer Williams, trend towards either the voice of conscience or comic relief.  Similarly, I found myself wanting to read more about Erica and Marie­­––feeling more like I was told how right they were for each other instead of being shown.  On the other hand, the Santora’s Italian family values were written in such a rich and believable fashion that the reader truly feels the repeated heartbreaks of both Marie and Uncle Freddie.

While Camptown Ladies is not quite as madcap as big sister, Greetings from Jamaica, Wish You Were Queer, this sequel stands up on its own as a fast, fun, and frisky read.  The story has plenty of wit, humor, angst, unexpected drama and romance, it is populated by characters that stick with you, and it ultimately leaves you wishing Camptown Ladies and her fraternal twin, Camp, Camp really existed.  This was a playful romp that produced a handful of hearty guffaws––I’m giving Mari SanGiovanni’s brave and crazy Camptown Ladies a 4.9 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale. 

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