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Rebecca Wells in full flower with ‘The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder’
Fiction junkies packing for vacation can without hesitation place “The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder” into the juicy reading pile. There’s period drama, there’s romance, and there’s a lot of fabulous hair, all wrapped in a vibrantly Southern package.
This is what fans have come to expect from Rebecca Wells, Bainbridge Islander and author of the smash hit “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” among others.
But Wells had a few other things in mind for her latest, long-awaited novel, which she’ll present this Tuesday evening at Bainbridge Performing Arts for West Sound Reads.
“This book maybe has some of the saddest things I’ve ever written,” she said.
A heavy load, after all, is what any hero must carry at certain points along the way, and Wells describes the story of her titular character as a journey — that of a small-town naïf who, “like any hero or heroine of a story, is in their small, safe place, and they leave to go to the unknown. And there they have many troubles, and they come back with a new gift and a new piece of knowledge.”
Calla Lily Ponder’s life begins with her mother raising her to the moon to ask for a blessing.
The girl’s early days pass within the bubble of a family unit that is magically unbreakable, as love flows in all directions among husbands and wives, parents and children, and of course – this is Rebecca Wells, people – girlfriends.
Magical realism and spiritual imagery permeate the novel; Calla’s mother has and passes on the gift of a healing touch, and Calla spends many an hour observing the women of her tiny Louisiana river town stopping into her mother’s beauty shop to get their hair fixed and their souls soothed.
Bit by bit, though, the real world worms its way in, with Calla encountering a series of trials covering a range of big themes and concerns — among them loss, child abuse, racism and the precariousness of the environment, particularly in Wells’ home state of Louisiana. As the plot molds Calla’s soul, as Wells puts it, the heroine also becomes a lens through which the writer magnifies larger stories about our country’s history and the human experience.
Wells wrote “Calla Lily” while suffering from Lyme disease, a tick-borne infectious disease that has had chronic, debilitating physical effects. She was fatigued, her hands hurt when typing, and for a time she had to be wheeled to the computer and placed in her writing chair.
And while the author says definitively that Calla’s path is not her own, she allows that she might not have created such intense challenges for her heroine if she herself hadn’t been in the midst of one.
“That’s one of the blessings of an illness, is that it opens your heart to more compassion,” she said.
Right now, Wells says she feels a little bit like Rip van Winkle.
The most acute aspects of her disease are beginning to abate and become manageable, and she is “coming out of a period of caregivers and wheelchairs and walkers.” She’s engaged in publicity for “Calla Lily,” her writing continues, and as a local plug, she’d like to get the word out that she and her husband are looking for two small, healthy ewes to augment their flock.
“And that will give more of a picture of my sophisticated, writerly life,” she said.
West Sound Reads Rebecca Wells reads from “The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder” at 7:30 p.m. July 14 at Bainbridge Performing Arts, 200 Madison Ave. N on Bainbridge. The West Sound Reads event is free, with a portion of proceeds and donations benefiting Bainbridge Island’s Helpline House. Bring baby products to help fill a crib in the BPA lobby.