Shots rang out in Savannah's grandest mansion in the misty,early morning hours of May 2, 1981. Was it murder or self-defense? For nearly a decade, the shooting and its aftermath reverberated throughout this hauntingly beautiful city of moss-hung oaks and shaded squares. John Berendt's sharply observed, suspenseful, and witty narrative reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel, and yet it is a work of nonfiction. Berendt skillfully interweaves a hugely entertaining first-person account of life in this isolated remnant of the Old South with the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case.
It is a spellbinding story peopled by a gallery of remarkable characters: the well-bred society ladies of the Married Woman's Card Club; the turbulent young redneck gigolo; the hapless recluse who owns a bottle of poison so powerful it could kill every man, woman, and child in Savannah; the aging and profane Southern belle who is the "soul of pampered self-absorption"; the uproariously funny black drag queen; the acerbic and arrogant antiques dealer; the sweet-talking, piano-playing con artist; young blacks dancing the minuet at the black debutante ball; and Minerva, the voodoo priestess who works her magic in the graveyard at midnight. These and other Savannahians act as a Greek chorus, with Berendt revealing the alliances, hostilities, and intrigues that thrive in a town where everyone knows everyone else.
This book was one of my Libby Library App finds. It showed up as a suggested read and the name rang a bell. I'd heard the title mentioned somewhere before, but honestly knew nothing about it. I threw caution to the wind and checked it out. It is an older book - first published in 1984. A movie adaptation directed and produced by Clint Eastwood was released in 1997.
It took a bit for me to be pulled into this story, but when it happened, my world disappeared and I was transported to Savannah of the 80's. What was the biggest surprise? Discovering AFTER I had finished the book that it wasn't a fictional tale. This book shares the author's experiences living in Savannah part time for 8 years. I never would have known.
It was interesting to look at the reviews written by others - everything from 3 star to 5 star. I probably would place it at 4.5. The author managed to capture the feel of the city at that time as well as a bit of the history that led up to where the story started. The characters were unique and strong. It was an amazing look into a southern society and how it functioned at different places in the social hierarchy. And the people he chose to wrap the story around led us to see the many different layers of Savannah society - from the elite monied class, to the drag scene, to a male prostitute, to a graveyard complete with voodoo rituals.
The one note I would make is simply that each character had a place to fill in this story, so what we saw was only one side of who they were. It would have been very complex to develop the full range of each of the characters, so in my opinion, keeping their portrayal focused in served to keep the story line moving forward with out a lot of distraction.
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Meet the Author -
Berendt first traveled to Savannah in the early 1980s, when he realized that he could fly there for a three-day weekend for the price of "a paillard of veal served on a bed of wilted radicchio" in one of New York's trendier restaurants. Over the ensuing eight years his visits became more frequent and extended, until he was spending more time in Savannah than in New York.
Part of the appeal, Berendt says, lay in the city's penchant for morbid gossip: "People in Savannah don't say, 'Before leaving the room, Mrs. Jones put on her coat.' Instead, they say, 'Before leaving the room, Mrs. Jones put on the coat that her third husband gave her before he shot himself in the head.'"
Since the publication and unprecedented success of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Berendt has become a Savannah celebrity and was even presented with the key to the city. "I took it down to City Hall one night to see if it would work, but it didn't."