Charms is a family saga. The narrator, Margaret Birch tells of her mother, Sophia, her grandmother, Charlie Kate, her no-good father, her failed grandfather and a broad cast of characters that inhabit the southern towns of her upbringing. It oozes warmth. I was reminded of A Secret Life of Bees. They are of a cloth. The women of this tale, like the men in Lake Wobegon are all strong. The matriarch, Charlie Kate becomes a local legend with her broad knowledge of healing and her tenacity at getting the right things done. She is an icon of courage. Sophia is not quite the legend that Charlie Kate is, but she does well enough, surviving a bad, impulsive marriage to make a life and raise her daughter, the narrator, Margaret.
The language of this novel is lush. Gibbons breathes life into her characters, and is able to structure a plot. However, I found the male characters thin, which I suppose is to be expected in a novel that has such a focus on women. Charlie Kate’s husband is a willow next to her oak. Sophia’s husband is a cad, quickly disposed of. Her boyfriend, Mister Baines, never felt to me to be more than a shadow, and on the other end of the spectrum, the man of Margaret’s dreams, Tom, is such a dream, rich, brave, handsome, cool, as to make one wonder if there might be a large S on his underclothing. But that sounds like quibbling. This is a great novel.
In talking with a female source at Harper about the author, I heard that Gibbons was quite an unpleasant sort. That comes through in the material at the end of the book: Meet Kaye Gibbons, A Discussion with Kaye Gibbons et al. We learn that she lives with her three teenage daughters. There is no mention of a father or husband, dead or living. Perhaps they fled.