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Susan TekulveIn the final novel of the Big Stone Gap trilogy, Adriana Trigiani returns to the Virginia mountain setting of her first two bestselling novels, 2000's Big Stone Gap and 2001's Big Cherry Holler. Ave Maria, that Italian-American girl from Cracker's Neck Holler, is now teetering on the precipice of middle age. Still married to house contractor Jack MacChesney, she faces the new challenge of raising her quickly developing daughter, Etta.
The episodic narrative begins when Etta is twelve and spans six years. In an early scene, Ave finds Etta on top of the MacChesneys' old stone house, helping two family friends patch the roof. When the girl slips, Ave props a ladder against the house and eases her safely to the ground. This moment prefigures the central conflict of the book—the natural tension between a fearful mother and a daughter who resists her mother's attempts to keep her safe. Sometimes, this tension is difficult to believe. Sensible and pretty, Etta is more interested in astronomy and architecture than boys. She even sets the dinner table without being asked.
Trigiani seasons the mother/daughter story with tidbits of mountain lore, both Appalachian and Italian. She inserts full recipes for pansotti and chocolate Coca-Cola cake in the middle of her narrative. Big Stone Gap fans will also enjoy catching up with the characters from the first two novels. In between mothering crises, Ave visits her old friend Theodore at his new apartment in New York City and meets up with Pete Rutledge, the hunky marble exporter with whom she romped through a Tuscan field of bluebells. Ave's loyal best friend, Iva Lou, still drives the local bookmobile and talks like a pluckycountry-and-western song. During a girls' night out in Abingdon to see a musical production of Fair and Tender Ladies, Iva Lou and Ave joke about being just like the characters in the play "on a good night."
This comparison to Lee Smith's gorgeous, authentic novel about another Virginia mountain girl, Ivy Rowe, is unfortunate because it draws attention to the weaknesses in Trigiani's novel. Trigiani's characters may be gussied-up Appalachian people, but the narrative voices and artistic visions of these two books are vastly different. Smith's heroine is landlocked by mountains and relentless poverty, but she continually reaches beyond her own limited experience. Though college educated and well traveled, Ave Maria consistently oversimplifies the people and places she encounters, and sometimes her own emotions.
Both heroines are deeply tied to the mountains that surround their hometowns. Smith chronicles the modernization of southern Appalachia, exploring the complex effects of lumber and coal companies that have plowed through this region, leaving behind whole communities struggling to retain a way of life that is no longer viable. Trigiani's heroine finds peace and a loving community in her small town, and the most lyrical passages in Milk Glass Moon occur when Ave finds consolation in the soulful mountain scenery. Flying home from New York City, Ave sees the Blue Ridge mountains rolling out beneath her window and remarks, "Southwest Virginia is an uncomplicated place for a complex person, and I miss it whenever I go."
While the coal operations hover menacingly outside the borders of Big Stone Gap, Trigiani creates and sustains a sweet, nostalgic portrait of bucolic mountains and simple small-town folk. However, those looking for a complex treatment of this region and its people will not find it in this novel.