The Story of Suburban Rhonda
December 11, 2011 5:49 AM   Subscribe

Looking for some suburban/small-town fiction or memoirs - think Tom Perotta, Lake Wobegon, or Northern Exposure.

Basically, I want something that's a little light but not literary junk food; something about people's lives and dreams but not in a way that reads like a heartwarming TV movie. I have no idea what this genre is called, other than that it somehow melds literary fiction with the downhomeyness of those books with detective cats or recipes ending each chapter. They're oft set in American small towns or suburbia, and more likely than not show a little bit of darkness or creepiness behind the picket fence.

Examples of books that have the feel I'm looking for:

*Mailman - J Robert Leonnard
* most of AM Holmes' novels, save The End of Alice (which you do NOT want to read on a packed commuter train...)
*The Mammoth Cheese - Sheri Holmann
*Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon (though this was a book I admired rather than enjoyed fully for some reason)
*The Abstinence Teacher/Little Children/Election - Tom Perotta
*The Big Stone Gap series by Adriana Trigiani - this is a bit too soapy but I enjoyed it anyway; the rest of her novels were just too sappy for me
* Bee Season by Myla Goldberg (?)
* Name All The Animals by Alison Smith/Dress Codes by Noelle Howey - these are both memoirs which have a lot in common with the fiction already mentioned. (Tried Haven Kimmell and didn't like her.) I absolutely loved both of them, and generally enjoy memoirs about the lives of ordinary people (as opposed to showbiz autobiographies).

Lisa Jewell's books, whilst not American, have a similar feel. As does The Help, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, although those are focused around particular historical events. (I absolutely loved Sunnyside by Glenn David Gould, which was also a historical novel that I devoured like a cheap thriller, but not sure it fits in to this millieu so that's a post for another day!) I don't mind this, or a mystery element, but it can be hard to find the good stuff in amongst the books with big eyed moppets on pastel covers once you are looking at anything that's troubled the bestseller list. It can be difficult to find great mass-market fiction when you don't feel like reading yet another 500 page tome on post-colonial experiences during late modernity.

Is there a name for this type of book? And can you recommend others?
posted by mippy to Society & Culture (38 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Handling Sin by Michael Malone is very much in the Lake Woebegone oeuvre.
posted by doctor_negative at 6:01 AM on December 11, 2011

If you liked J Robert Lennon's Mailman, I would definitely pick up The Funnies.

And although his stuff is a bit older than what you've listed here, I don't think anyone has ever done the American banal better than J.F. Powers. Morte D'Urban is one of my all-time favorite books.
posted by otio at 6:10 AM on December 11, 2011

Some of Jean Shephard's stories were turned into a heartwarming TV movie - A Christmas Story. His books are much in the same vein.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:18 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Jim Harrison's True North, and its sequel Returning to Earth.
posted by timsteil at 6:24 AM on December 11, 2011

A Short History of a Small Place is 100% delightful. It's been years but need to read it again.
posted by mochapickle at 6:26 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Greater Tuna is a series of comedic plays performed by a two man troupe, which is hilarious and thought-provoking by turns. They still tour the show, and it looks like they're available on DVD as well.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:28 AM on December 11, 2011

Empire Falls by Richard Russo (fiction)

The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer (memoir)

All Over but the Shoutin by Rick Bragg (memoir)
posted by kimdog at 6:30 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Truck: A Love Story and Population 485, both by Michael Perry, are great nonfiction about life in small-town Wisconsin.
posted by JumpW at 6:31 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Holy Land by D.J Waldie is a beautiful memoir about suburbia — it's a bit more poetic/thoughtful/heavy than exactly what you're looking for, but it's very worthwhile.
posted by dreamyshade at 6:46 AM on December 11, 2011

I want something that's a little light but not literary junk food; something about people's lives and dreams

Happens Every Day. Not necessarily light since it focuses on the disintegration of a marriage but very entertaining. Privileged wife and mother moves to Oberlin, Ohio, sells homey flower bouquets at an outdoor market, and teaches drama part-time, while her professor husband teaches English and sleeps with another woman.

One True Thing by Anna Quindlen's One True Thing. Set in small college town. Protagonist's mother (who is dying of cancer) is a natural at cooking and crafting. Detailed descriptions of handmade needlepoint pillows and blue ceramic pie plates and the process of making lunch for the monthly woman's group, etc.
posted by Fairchild at 6:46 AM on December 11, 2011

Susan Allen Toth's Blooming and Ivy Days
posted by brujita at 6:52 AM on December 11, 2011

Maybe Eden Lake by Jane Roper.
posted by maxim0512 at 6:56 AM on December 11, 2011

Citrus County by John Brandon
posted by iamscott at 7:07 AM on December 11, 2011

The Mitford series by Jan Karon
posted by jquinby at 7:11 AM on December 11, 2011

Thanks so far - I'll look some of these up when not on my phone. Richard Russo was the fellow whose name I was trying to recall yesterday....
posted by mippy at 7:12 AM on December 11, 2011

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
posted by thewestinggame at 7:16 AM on December 11, 2011 [4 favorites]

If you haven't read To Kill A Mockingbird that should go on your list for sure.
posted by mmmbacon at 7:31 AM on December 11, 2011

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

What's Eating Gilbert Grape and An Ocean In Iowa both by Peter Hedges

TOTALLY seconding Michael Perry - he's one of my favorites.
posted by bibliogrrl at 7:32 AM on December 11, 2011

Wouldn't Bradbury's Dandelion Wine fall into this category?
posted by Max Power at 7:44 AM on December 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Did you read Haven Kimmell's fiction or just her memoir? If you haven't tried her fiction you might like it better.

I was also going to recommend Richard Russo, but Straight Man instead.
posted by apricot at 7:59 AM on December 11, 2011

Perhaps James Herriot's books. I always thought his books were autobiographical but apparently they're actually creative nonfiction. They're basically a collection of short stories of his experiences as a vet in the early 20th century in England. Quite beautiful.
posted by DoubleLune at 8:15 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Boys of My Youth and In Zanesville both by Jo Ann Beard.
posted by sulaine at 8:31 AM on December 11, 2011

Nobody's mentioned A Girl Named Zippy, Haven Kimmel's very sweet and funny small-town memoir.
posted by mireille at 8:53 AM on December 11, 2011

mirelle - I read it and found it very dull, I'm afraid.

I haven't read To Kill A Mocking-bird for years! I wouldn't mind giving it another look. And the reviews of Happy Every Day look pretty scathing...

Eden Lake looks pretty good, though I am confused as the same title was given to a British hoodie slasher film! I'm guessing they don't share the same plot.
posted by mippy at 9:08 AM on December 11, 2011

Seconding Jean Shepherd, especially Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories: and Other Disasters about his 1950s boyhood in a Midwestern steel mill town. Nostalgic Americana and side-splittingly funny.
posted by Quietgal at 9:13 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think The Cold Sassy Tree might fit. I think it is the lovechild of To Kill A Mockingbird and the movie Stand By Me. So good. I can't find my copy so, I have just ordered another copy of it so I can read it again.
posted by gagoumot at 9:14 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Try Plainsong by Kent Haruf. It's a beautiful quick read interweaving the stories of community members in a small Colorado town.
posted by statsgirl at 10:00 AM on December 11, 2011

You might - and I emphasize "might"- like the "The Cat Who..." series by Lillian Jackson Braun. They are mystery stories, but they are really more about the town and its characters, and the mystery is secondary. They are sometimes a bit cheesy, probably because the author was nearly 60, I believe, when she started writing them, and in her mid 90's when she stopped. The lead character is a curmudgeon, though, they are well written, and they don't veer into romantic, happy ending, made-for-TV territory. To me, they are comfort food books, that I read when I'm sick or cranky. YMMV. You can pick them up for next to nothing used, though, so it's a cheap gamble to try one.
posted by MexicanYenta at 10:11 AM on December 11, 2011

Seconding the recommendation of Cold Sassy Tree, and its sequel Leaving Cold Sassy
posted by invisible ink at 10:39 AM on December 11, 2011

The Beans of Egypt, Maine, and just about everything from Carolyn Chute.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 10:47 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Robertson Davies should fit the bill - small town Anglican Canada. The Salterton and Deptford trilogies and his final two books, Murther and Walking Spirits and The Cunning Man, I've read and highly recommend.
posted by goo at 11:01 AM on December 11, 2011

Jon Hassler wrote books like these, especially Staggerford, Rookery Blues, and North of Hope. They're all definitely small town, not particularly heart-warming, and just a little dark overall.
posted by mgar at 11:51 AM on December 11, 2011

Fannie Flagg is good at this sort of thing. I particularly liked Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe; it's enjoyable and has moments of humour, but also touches on the far-reaching effects of homophobia, domestic violence, and racism. The movie was based on the novel, but although the movie is fairly good, the book is better. Her later novel, Standing in the Rainbow, is a bit lighter but still a pleasant read.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:28 PM on December 11, 2011

It's technically poetry, but it reads like a novel: Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology.
posted by bubukaba at 3:47 PM on December 11, 2011

E.F. Benson's Mapp & Lucia books
posted by IndigoJones at 5:55 PM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the recommendations! Some of these aren't so easy to get in the UK, but I'm planning on getting a Kindle next year so I can always see if I can get them that way. The Michael Perry books sound like a rougher version of The Vinyl Cafe, which is a good thing.

MexicanYenta - there seems to be a lot of those sort of gentle mysteries, centred around hobbies like scrapbooking or psychic cats. I wonder if they're like chick lit - books like Bridget Jones coming first, and then a slew of imitators that didn't pick up on the satire, subtlety or heart that the first big hit had. (Bridget Jones was written as literary fiction, rather than in the chick-lit genre, but it seemed to kick the whole thing off.)

The other genre which, to me, is surprisingly huge are books about werewolves that are more romance or mystery than horror.
posted by mippy at 1:24 AM on December 12, 2011

Do John Updike and John Cheever count? They might be too literary. You might also try Richard Ford. The Sportwriter is about a suburban guy wandering around New Jersey in his middle age. Amazing language and tone.
posted by vecchio at 2:57 AM on December 12, 2011

I keep meaning to read more Updike, and I'm not too familiar with Cheever. I have no issue with literary, but I find many literary novels in this category are reaching too hard to be a big ol' macho Great American Novel and it can sometimes be grating. Hemingway and Mailer had a lot to answer for.

I have Revolutionary Road on my shelf ready to read, so I'll check out The Sportwriter.
posted by mippy at 6:51 AM on December 14, 2011

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