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Onyx reviews: I Still Dream About You by Fannie Flagg

A six-time competitor, Fannie Flagg (Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe) knows a few things about the Miss Alabama pageant. For someone from a poor family, it represented a way to get a scholarship and attend university, even if she never got to wear the crown.

The protagonist of her latest novel, Maggie Fortenberry, was more fortunate. Some forty years ago, she became Miss Alabama, a title she wore (and continues to wear) with pride. Becoming Miss Alabama was supposed to be the first step in the rest of her wonderful life. It was supposed to finance her education and, perhaps, get her a husband. She swept into Atlantic City as the odds-on favorite. However, racial tensions and the resultant unflattering headlines about her home state cost her the Miss America title.

Maggie's life since then has been mostly one of similar disappointments. She rejected the suitor who might have been the love of her life and ended up having a long and unfulfilling affair with a married man. She overthinks just about everything because she doesn't want to offend anyone. She's never sworn, never gotten so much as a parking ticket. It's like she still sees herself as Miss Alabama, representing her state on a larger stage.

Ultimately she returns to Birmingham with her tail between her legs. The world didn't embrace her, so she seeks the familiar comforts of her hometown. A chance encounter while on the way to an interview for a job she believes is beneath a former Miss Alabama leads her to a different career. She is intercepted by Hazel Whisenknott, owner and operator of Red Mountain Realty. The world's most optimistic person, Hazel stands a mere three-foot four, but she exudes confidence—and the universe responds. As a child, while pulling weeds from a neighbor's yard, she discovered countless four-leaf clovers. She's a dynamo and quickly becomes Maggie's best friend, convincing the former beauty queen that she is eminently qualified to sell houses.

When I Still Dream About You opens, Maggie is sixty and Hazel has been dead for several years. Maggie is tired, depressed and ready to check out. Red Mountain Realty is hanging on by a thread, a victim of the housing market collapse, and she can't see anything worth hanging around for. She draws up a list of pros and cons to staying and has no trouble filling up the cons column.

Still concerned about tarnishing the reputation of Miss Alabama and wanting to avoid hurting her remaining friends as far as possible, she concocts a plan whereby she will just disappear. She thinks of everything, liquidates her assets, settles her debts, and arranges to have her belongings quietly donated. Once the day arrives, she'll vanish without a trace, leaving behind no unfulfilled obligations.

However, fate has other plans. She postpones her departure date when her close friend and co-worker Brenda invites her to a performance by the Whirling Dervishes. Brenda, a binge eater who struggles with her weight, aspires to become the first female African American mayor of Birmingham.

A number of other unforeseen incidents interfere with Maggie's plans, including a friend's illness and a car accident involving an amorous goat named Leroy. Each delay causes a strain because of her thorough preparations. She even ends up taking out a loan because she gave away all her money. She also feels liberated, though. She no longer has to worry so much about the future, and she doesn't have to pretend she likes things or people she doesn't—such as her only remaining relative, a distant cousin in Maine.

Then comes the ultimate temptation: she hears via the grapevine that Crestview, a mountainside mansion that she dreamt about living in as a child, built over a century ago by Scottish immigrant Edward Crocker's father, is about to be sold. She can't afford it for herself, but she wants to keep it out of the hands of someone who would tear it down. Besides, Red Mountain Realty badly needs the commission the sale represents. For the first time in her life, Maggie acts unscrupulously, stealing the listing from Babs Bingington, aka the Beast of Birmingham, a rival realtor who routinely cheats other agents, dupes clients, and may even have married a couple of men to get their listings.

The story takes an unexpected turn when Maggie and Brenda discover a skeleton in a steamer trunk in Crestview's attic. The bones, which are wearing a kilt, have been there for over half a century, but their presence is a realtor's nightmare. She's obligated to disclose their presence to prospective buyers. However, business is tight and every day she doesn't sell Crestview is another day before she can put her plan into action. She and Brenda decide to remove the skeleton and hide it in a storage locker, leading to one of the book's funniest scenes, involving dropped bones and a harrowing encounter with a police officer.

While waiting for a buyer to make an offer on the multi-million dollar home, Maggie, curious about how the skeleton ended up in the attic, asks the local librarian to do some research. Edward Crocker was reportedly lost at sea in the 1930s, a few days after his twin sister died in Scotland. Documents accompanying the steamer trunks indicate they were sent to Crestview after the war. The kilt's tartan matches one in a portrait of Crocker. Could the bones be his? Though her investigation reveals much that was unknown about the Crocker family, she never learns the ultimate truth. Flagg reveals the that only to her readers.

It's hard to imagine anyone else building a novel around a terminally depressed Southern belle, but Flagg pulls it off. Maggie's situation rarely becomes morose—there's too much else going on around her for that to happen. The other characters keep the mood lighter, too, especially Hazel Whisenknott, revealed through a series of flashbacks. Flagg also jumps back to the Crocker era and to Maggie's youth, when she lived with her family in an apartment over a movie theater.

This is a book about colorful, larger than life women, including Ethel Clipp, the octogenarian secretary at Red Mountain Realty who thinks Truman was the last good president and who wears nothing but shades of purple because someone once told her that was the color of her aura, and the unrepentantly evil Babs Bingington, with whom Maggie has a wonderful scene near the end of the book. Credit to Flagg for not redeeming Babs. She's bad to the bone and happy to be that way. True, everything is wrapped up a little too neatly at the end, but that's okay. The journey is fun and readers will be happy to see the way things resolve for these ladies.


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