(This review first appeared in February 2005)

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

As Hot As It Was You Ought to Thank Me, by Nanci Kincaid.  Back Bay Books (2005), 384 pages.

Many literary fiction readers undoubtedly missed out on this book due to the unwieldy chick-lit like title and the equally misleading cover art.  In addition there are some serious problems with the beginning of the novel.  For the first three pages, I thought this was going to be one of the best books of the year.  Then suddenly everything fell apart—for the next fifty pages the story meandered aimlessly to and fro, any sense of plot had evaporated—and I finally gave up and threw it into the give-away pile.  And then, one day stuck at home with the flu, with nothing to read (and obviously in a state of desperation), I picked it up again. It started getting better and better and then became so good I couldn’t put it down.

A book with these kinds of issues clearly needs (besides an editor) someone to say: Read this book.  Just ignore the terrible cover, pay no attention to the disastrous title, drag yourself through the first fifty pointless pages, and you will be rewarded.

The story is narrated by a thirteen-year-old girl growing up in 1950’s rural Florida and takes place over a long hot summer.  It is a coming-of-age story, but told in classic Southern literature style (as opposed to the cliched South populated by “wacky eccentrics.”)  Kincaid has a real talent for getting the people, the humor, and the landscape of the South just right.

Note: Do not read the back cover of this book. The editors have said far too much about what happens, ruining much of the story for those who prefer to learn about crucial plot twists by actually reading the book.

Around the back of the house was a swept yard. It was like colored people do their yards in Tallahassee and Alabama. The sand was so smooth you hated to walk on it and mess it up. Underneath a shade tree sat Mrs. Miller in a straight-back chair. She was a plain woman. You know, one of the plain people, whose religion makes her be plain—even plainer than necessary. The Millers went to the Baptist church though, whenever they went to church at all, and the Baptists did not insist on plainness in their women…. Mrs. Miller was the only woman I’d ever seen, religious or not who was dead serious about plainness. She wore a black dress that came all the way to the ground. She wore a pair of men’s black shoes. Her hair was parted in the middle and pulled back into such a tight knot it looked like her eyes wouldn’t blink. She wore an old-timey bonnet that was so embarrassing to see her in, made her look like somebody just off a wagon train west. It made her look one hundred years old, like she was supposed to be from the olden days but had somehow got mixed up and ended up in present-day Pinetta and didn’t know the difference. She stood up when she saw us, peeled that bonnet off her head—which we all apreciated—smiled at Mother, took the cake from her hands, saying, “Honey. But you ought not to done this.” She handed the cake to her daughter Rennie, who peeled back the tinfoil and studied it closely, then took it into the dark house, carried it like you carry a newborn baby.