A Southern exposé in a certain way, with grace and pain wrapped between frankly beautiful written pages. I was not expecting to love this story of a white man in the South, but there are some kernels here and no one was more surprised to find them than me.
Characters: ★★★★ 1/2
For those who know me here on Goodreads and in the book community, you might be thinking this really isn't my type of read. (You're totally right) A book written by a white dude, about a white dude in Nashville, Tennessee, with lots of white privilege and classism?? Amy, come on.
Well I had to eat my hat with this one, folks, because this was stunning.
Beautifully written, poignantly described, and filled with an unbelievably delicate balance of self-awareness and reflection on the hypocrisy and decay of the Southern white elite, The Fortunate Ones is a read that will no doubt be a focus of discussion in 2021.
Charlie Boykin grows up in a poorer part of Nashville with his single mother, Bonnie. Bonnie got pregnant at 15 and was thrown out of her rich family's house and told never to return. Charlie never knows anything different—his Aunt Sunny is a bar singer, his mother is a cocktail waitress at a bar nicknamed The Divorcee, and his best friend, Terrence, is a Black kid with a lot of heart who looks out for Charlie.
Then Charlie's life dramatically changes in high school. His mother has managed to snag him a need-based scholarship to Yeatman, an all-boy prep school known for housing Nashville's elite children with ties to old money and the Old South. Charlie has no idea what he's in for.
In a move that should feel derivative of The Great Gatsby but manages to stand alone and supersede it, Charlie's life as the "outsider" passes as he reflects on, admires, craves, and worms his way into the glamorous and decaying life of Nashville's rich. His tie to his close friend and occasional secret lover, Archer Creigh, becomes one of unbalanced love and manipulation as Charlie falls deeper and deeper into a world that he's aware is wrong, racist, and fueled by the pain of the lower classes—and yet the lure of the glitz is too much for him to ignore.
Spanning decades and locations, The Fortunate Ones feels like an epic wrapped in a mere 300 pages. Charlie is—surprisingly, for me as a woman from a lower middle class background—a likeable narrator to follow. He's both aware of his privilege and yet aware enough of his ignorance to own up to his blindness in certain arenas.
The people of color in this novel are marginalized and relegated to stereotypical Southern roles, and we as readers are uncomfortably aware of that boundary line even as young Charlie and old Charlie miss most of it. The women of this novel are trapped in the gossamer cage of the trophy, the accessory, the beautiful—and while Charlie catches some of that and misses most of it, Tarkington's skill as an author highlights it for us despite his own narrator's ignorance. I found that extremely well done.
Another element to this story was its fringe revelations in the handling of its gay and lesbian characters. In a society where sexuality is strictly forced into a heteronormative binary, Tarkington's way of highlighting that rot and hypocrisy by having Archer's sexuality bleed through the edges of the page was fascinating, along with Charlie's interactions with a mentor figure who exists as a lesbian amongst this world of "good old boys." I really can't talk about this element without spoilers, but wanted to highlight that it's here for those who would automatically dismiss the story as not including that element. (I totally did that, honestly, so I'm raising my own hand.)
What a beautiful, lingering piece of fiction.
Thank you to Algonquin Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.