In her eagerly anticipated second novel, The Sweet Life, York catches up with the good people of Swan’s Knob for another poignant, funny, and beautifully realized glimpse of small-town life in the South.
It’s been eight years since Roy Swan successfully won the hand of piano teacher and resident choir director, Miss Wilma and now, their lives have settled into a state of happy predictability. But all that changes with the arrival of Miss Wilma’s teenage granddaughter, whose estranged father, Harper, follows shortly behind. Soon Harper has convinced Roy to let him stage a “small” country and bluegrass concert in his pasture, drawing thousands of screaming fans, not to mention a small forest of Porta Potties. Roy and Wilma weather each new tempest with grace and grit, until a crippling stroke leaves Roy debilitated—and life in Swan’s Knob becomes a lot less simple.
A worthy successor to her memorable debut, Lynn York’s The Sweet Life weaves a story at once whimsical and wise, filled with all the warmth and charm of the South itself.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
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|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Lynn York was born and raised in North Carolina. Educated at Duke University and the University of Texas at Austin, she lived in Washington, D.C., working in the international telecommunications industry until small children and a promise of decent vegetables and a yard with grass brought her back to North Carolina in 1995.
Table of Contents
Reading Group Guide
The Sweet Life, Lynn York’s latest tale set in the fictional hamlet of Swan’s Knob, North Carolina, takes place ten years after Miss Wilma Mabry and Roy Swan first began their tentative and sweet courtship in The Piano Teacher. Now in 1988, the two lovebirds have settled into the easy, shared domesticity that comes with contented married life. Or so it would seem. Miss Wilma, busy with her life as piano teacher, church choir director, and wife of the richest and most altruistic man in Swan’s Knob, wonders if such happiness isn’t temporary, and suspects her husband might be a little bored with their quiet routine.
But then Roy suffers a stroke and its debilitating effects, and Wilma realizes her worst fears were paltry compared to the grim reality with which she must now contend. In addition to Roy’s ailing health, Miss Wilma has other issues to confront. Her teenage granddaughter, Star, is living with her for half of the school year and going through the throes of her first real (and sexual) romance with a local boy. Her ex-son-in-law, Harper, who has a special knack for irritating her, has been making plans on the sly with Roy to use the Swan homestead for his latest scheme. And her neighbors and friends, while well intentioned, keep clamoring to see Roy and aid in his recovery—when all he wants is to be left alone. On top of it all, Miss Wilma must struggle with the knowledge that when Roy says he doesn’t want to see anyone, he means, most particularly, her.
With this sequel to The Piano Teacher, York continues to explore human nature and interpersonal relationships through her intensely developed characters and her complex, riveting narratives. Readers will find new reasons to swear allegiance to the memorable Miss Wilma, as well as poignant, stirring messages about memory, trust, life, and love.
ABOUT LYNN YORK
Lynn York was born and raised in North Carolina. Educated at Duke University and the University of Texas at Austin, she lived in Washington D.C., working in the international telecommunications industry until small children and the promise of decent vegetables and a yard with grass brought her back to North Carolina in 1995.
A CONVERSATION WITH LYNN YORK
What sparked this new tale about Swan’s Knob? You’ve said that in The Piano Teacher, Miss Wilma Mabry was a strong character who surprised you. Would you say the same for Roy Swan? What about other characters, like Harper and Star, who were given more “room to breathe” in this novel?
Even as I was finishing The Piano Teacher, I knew that I wasn’t quite done with the folks of Swan’s Knob. I wanted to write a book that showed Swan’s Knob in a later era, and I wanted to find a story that could stand alone, so that it didn’t matter which book a reader picked up first.
Early on in my work, it was Roy Swan who intrigued me. As a character, he showed up fairly late in my drafting of the first book, and even though I added some sections for him as I revised, I just had the feeling that there was more to his story. I decided pretty quickly that The Sweet Life would be his book.
It was a lot of fun to return to Wilma and Roy, eight years after time of The Piano Teacher, and to find out how they were getting along. The romantic in me loved dreaming up the rest of their courtship and, particularly, their wedding—which I let Roy describe in first chapter of The Sweet Life. I particularly felt for Wilma: what would it be like to marry man in his sixties, a guy had never been married and still lived in his parents’ house? It was fun to imagine how they would negotiate those early trials of moving in together, giving one another “space,” adjusting to each others’ histories and family background. And of course, when you start so late in life, you run into the inevitable problems of aging all too soon. It was interesting to work with characters I already knew as they grappled with an increasingly difficult situation.
Likewise, it was lots of fun to take some of the other original characters, such as Starling, who was a ten in The Piano Teacher, and find out how they had grown up. Starling is a pretty precocious seventeen-year-old in this book. She makes everyone call her Star now and dresses a bit like Madonna. (This book is set in 1988, remember). Poor Star’s the kind of kid who has matured early, mostly because the adults in her life have not. For example, her father, Harper, is still pretty much the same randy rascal at forty that he was at thirty-two. Harper’s always been one of my favorite characters. He scrambles a bit over the course of this book to make something of himself—and he does have some success, though I think he always going to be the kind of guy who swigs a little tequila right before he goes out for a run.
While the setting of The Sweet Life and many of the main characters remain the same as in The Piano Teacher, this new novel seems to have greater scope than the first Swan’s Knob tale. Can you elaborate on some of the themes you wanted to explore in the book—or was any and all thematic work unconsciously done?
I think people living in small towns everywhere, and particularly, those in the South, experienced some major changes in outlook during the span of the 1980s (the time span for these two books). The physical and social barriers that kept Surry County, North Carolina, separate from Santa Fe, New Mexico, separate from Surrey County, England, and separate from Jakarta, Indonesia, for that matter—these barriers began to come down. If cheaper, faster transportation didn’t do it, then cable television and a thousand other things did.
I am no sociologist, but many people would say that this period is when the rural South started to blend in with the rest of the country. Maybe we became less backward, less isolated, but we also became more homogenized. And we let people put a bunch of ugly hamburger franchise outlets on our main streets. The good news is that we have clung to some of the important things that make us unique: our music, our language, our religion (for better or worse), and, of course, our ties to the land. Thematically, I guess I gravitate toward these elements—consciously or unconsciously, it’s probably a little bit of both—because I’m interested in whatever it is that distinguishes my experience, my people, from everyone else on earth.
Look at the way I’ve used wine and winemaking in The Sweet Life, for example. These ended up being important thematic components for the book, but the idea came from a much less lofty source: from my own experience growing up in Surry County. We had a family friend, Mr. Leck Brown, who would give us scuppernong wine for Christmas. He made the stuff himself and “bottled” it in plastic milk cartons. My parents didn’t really drink wine, but my daddy would pour it over the Christmas fruitcake, which tended to get a little dry over time. When I originally created Roy Swan for The Piano Teacher, I gave him Mr. Brown’s winemaking hobby.
When I decided to set The Sweet Life in 1988, I realized that this was just about the time a few people in the Yadkin Valley started getting serious about growing grapes—and not just the sweet native Scuppernongs, Muscadines, but a range of European (vinifera) varietals. This was a natural progression for Roy and his tobacco farm. I decided that Roy’s little winemaking hobby, as Wilma puts it, had gotten all out of hand, and that he had turned his old family farm into a vineyard. From the outset, I knew my book would cover the time span of the harvest season for Roy’s vineyard in the year just before his grapes will yield a full production.
From there, the whole idea took on a life of its own. Roy’s wine emerges first as a mere prop in the action, then it becomes truly tangled up (or you might say, entwined) with the plotline, and gradually, I hope the reader can begin to see what the process of winemaking—the concentration and preservation of the fruits of the earth—might mean to Roy and, by extension, to the rest of us.
You can think of it that way, or you can go along with a few of my friends, who claim that I put in all that winemaking in my book solely for the research experience. I did have to research the winemaking process, folks. This involved arduous process of driving around on the pretty back roads of western North Carolina and stopping in the vineyards of the Yadkin Valley. It would have been rude not to sample a little bit here and there. . . . I guess I was expecting the wine to taste like Les Brown’s sweet, syrupy scuppernong, but I was mistaken. Let me give you a quick commercial: There is some very nice wine produced in North Carolina right now. I favor the Cabernet Francs and the Voigniers I’ve tried, but most all of the major varietals are now produced somewhere in the state. The Yadkin Valley received its official appellation in 2003, and there are lots of great vineyards to visit: Shelton, Westbend, Round Peak, Childress, Raylen, and many others.
While The Piano Teacher was by no means a saccharine tale, The Sweet Life seems to have a darker, more complex tone. What compelled you to explore the boundaries of life and death so extensively in this novel? What accounts for this difference in tone? Were you aware of the difference as you wrote The Sweet Life?
I guess The Sweet Life is a bit darker. I think of this book as part of the Southern gothic tradition, though the most macabre elements of the story are nothing more than the awful results of human aging. I was very interested in exploring what happens to love—physical love, romantic love, familial affection—as our bodies deteriorate and begin that long slide from life to death. I wanted to try to recount the way people struggle to summon up whatever forces they have on earth to prevent, or at least postpone, our decline.
Roy and Wilma, a happy couple married late in life, were natural candidates for this exploration. To me, Roy’s illness is all the more distressing to us because it comes on just at the moment when his life has hit its stride. That’s the real poignancy of middle and advancing age, isn’t it? That you feel you’ve just begun, and then boom, your back goes out (or worse . . . ). Chronicling the onset of Roy’s stroke and the aftermath of damage made for some tough writing days. It took me fully two weeks to get through the scene where Roy falls unconscious under his truck.
My consolation (beyond the fact that he is not a real person, of course) was that I am simply not able to see life, even the life I create in my novels, solely in a somber light. There are not a lot of funny things about having a stroke, of course, but I did manage have some fun with Roy’s language impairment and his gift for checking out his nurses’ cleavage. I even threw in a little bathroom humor toward the end. Beyond that, the story lines of other characters in book serve as significant counterpoints to Roy and Wilma’s situation. I really enjoyed writing about the young love (or lust, maybe, you’ll have to decide) between Josh and Star. I was hoping that this would remind readers that Roy himself (and all of us) were young once, and that we bring some portion of that starry-eyed exuberance with us, even into old age.
What interests you more: narrative or character? Which do you find it more difficult to develop over the course of a novel?
I would say that I am just about equally interested in the two. However, when I write a novel, I always start with my characters. That means, first, finding ways—through language, action, and detail—to breathe life into flat, vague ideas, until they become people who are nearly real (at least to me). Once I’ve done that, I just follow them around for a while within their particular setting, and gradually, I begin to find their place within my novel. If you look back at the first chapter The Sweet Life, notice how much we learn about Josh, just from a quick tour of his attic room.
Not all of my “walkabouts” with characters actually end up in the novels themselves, though. I do a lot of work on them away from the book itself and even away from my writing desk. I even dream about characters once in a while, just like you might dream about your dead Aunt Mildred. One time, Miss Wilma appeared in a dream in which I was shopping for clothes at the Traditional Shop in downtown Swan’s Knob. She went through the racks and advised me on what I should be wearing. If that sounds freakish, I can tell you, it sort of was. . . .
Once I have developed a decent group of characters, I try to understand where each character is in his or her life, and most importantly, how each character relates to the others. The narrative, or what most people think of as the plot, is just a natural outgrowth the characters and their conflicts with each other. Once you put all of the people in motion within the confines of a small Southern town, thankfully, things just start to happen. Once one thing happens, that causes another, and pretty soon, every one of my characters is in a heap o’ trouble, and I am late for carpool because I am so involved trying to figure out how to extract Celeste from her impulse to kill her patients or how to help Star decide if Josh is “the one.” This is a lot of fun for me, more fun than almost anything else on a good day, and my children have grown accustomed to my tardiness.
That said, I think it is difficult to develop a really interesting narrative, one that is going to make my readers stay up late to read one more chapter. The way my process goes, I don’t plan out my plot too far in advance. I have only a very sketchy idea where I am going at any given moment (here, my friends will see interesting parallels to my real life!). What this means is that I hit dead ends, or at least, very boring cul de sacs, and end up backtracking, rewriting, etc. There are also days where my characters refuse to do what I say (again, real life parallels . . . ) or uninvited strangers show up in Greyhound tour buses (Delrina Kay drove into my novel in just this way). These are all good things, though they can make your writing (and, by the way, your life) a little untidy, requiring you to go back and do a bunch of straightening up later.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Lynn York has beautifully written a charming, warm story of how family relationships heal, bend, grow and deepen. Set in the small town of Swan's Knob, North Carolina, elderly couple Wilma and Roy Swan are happily enjoying a quiet life together. But chaos is ensured when Wilma's teenage granddaughter, Star, arrives for an extended stay. Soon after, Star's con man father shows up and talks Roy into using the Swan family farm for a "small" bluegrass festival. As the story unfolds, the Swans are heading for a crisis which will forever change their lives and their community. This engaging story is written in the third person, alternating between six of the characters providing a deeper perspective of their relationships. Ms. York did a magnificent job describing the essence of life in this particular small southern town. The storyline is very imaginative and captivating. The emotionally complex characters are extremely well developed and interesting, and their antics provide many laugh-out-loud moments. The Swan's marriage portrays a rather accurate example of how love changes as we age. In addition, I enjoyed learning about the process of winemaking. I really loved this engaging, witty story and highly recommend it! This is the sequel to "The Piano Teacher", although both books stand alone.
In 1988 in Swan's Knob, North Carolina, Wilma and Roy Swan continue to behave like youthful newlyweds though they are much older and married for eight years. Life is good for this couple as the PIANO TEACHER and the grapevine farmer share what most people envy, a strong loving relationship. --- However, the dynamics abruptly change when Wilma¿s daughter from a previous marriage Sarah begs her to watch her teenage offspring Starling as she travels in the Far East. Reluctantly Wilma agrees to take in her granddaughter not realizing that when she acquiesces Star¿s father Harper will also come to town. A con artist, Harper persuades Roy to let him use the farm as the setting for a small bluegrass festival starring drunken has-been Delrina Kay. Wilma objects especially when she learns that Harper is thinking of a country and western 1980s Woodstock, but soon has a different crisis to deal with when Roy suffers a debilitating stroke that leaves him near death in a comatose state. When Delrina and Harper go on a wine binge they visit Roy who regains consciousness while they serenade him. --- The second Swan family drama starring a delightful older couple is an interesting look at small town southern life at the end of the Reagan era. The characters are cleverly drawn especially the beleaguered Wilma whose lament has to be a family member in need is a pest that is before Roy¿s stroke brings home the mortality of their love for one another. Though much of the issues brought forth by the strong secondary cast are left unresolved as if plans are for a next generation sequel, fans of family dramas with fully drawn protagonists will enjoy Lynn York¿s latest concerto. --- Harriet Klausner