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Sick and Full of Burning
Is there any hope for a hypereducated thirty-year-old med student who would like nothing better than to be taken seriously sexually? That's what Mary "Tennessee" Settleworth, the Tennessee, a native of Knoxville, is an all-around heretic: a Southerner who's happier up North; a Christian who favors Pelagius and free will over Augustine and original sin; a woman who chooses to specialize in gynecology, a field reserved, it seems, for men; a lady of urgent passions who has had no carnal engagements for a year. She has finally gone so far as to write a reply to Mailer's Prisoner of Sex for a men's magazine, an article entitled "Sexual Inmates: A Cellular Study." Before it is published, however, she enters the employ and the household of one Lulu Cameron Carlisle-a whining and possessive but philanthropic Park Avenue widow who has a fine suicidal flair for pot, heavy tranquilizers, and smoking in bed-and her lame fourteen-year-old daughter, who needs a governess. All three women are badly in need of a compassionate friend-preferably human and male-who is willing and most of all able to soothe both spirit and flesh.
Enter Adrien, the good man who's hard to find in Tennessee's life, a poet of angelic presence who courts her chastely. Is he a lifeline out of this doomed world of women, or Tennessee's supreme temptation? If saving Lulu from herself means losing Adrien, Tennessee has a martyr's crown cut out for her, until she realizes that martyrs and fools share a close family resemblance and that her vigil over Lulu is more prideful than responsible.
In Kelly Cherry's hands, moral dilemmas are both mirthful and exalted; and her heroine's voice is a slangy mixture of irony and sensibility.
"A just about perfect first novel-bright, sassy, sad and with talent, well, to burn," said Kirkus (starred review). Publisher's Weekly said that "what critics find so lacking in much feminist literature-humor, satire, genuine pathos-this literate novel about a young woman consistently displays." The Chicago Tribune Book World exclaimed, "A flawless first novel? You gotta be kidding! No kidding." And John Barkham, writing in The Philadelphia Inquirer, announced, "Ms. Cherry writes like a whiz."
Cover art by Joel Barr