I'll be the first to say I have nothing against character-driven novels. Middlesex, one of my all-time favorite novels, is largely character-driven and manages to string the anectdotes together well enough to keep me interested beginning to end. And plot-driven novels, especially the genre novels, are as predictable as they have been since fish-creatures sprouted legs and emerged from the primordial ooze. But Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man fit the character-driven model so well that I am beginning to suspect all books of this type are written by a team emulating a single style, like Nancy Drew. Daisy Fay does seem to read a lot of those...
This novel has all the usual hallmarks of a character-driven novel in the Deep South. The race question is largely skimmed over: Daisy Fay (Fay? Frances? Since the novel is in the first person and she is called all sorts of things by the millions of supporting characters I can't be sure) is very friendly wtih two black women and no one ever questions this. Her father is run out of town when he rents a room to "colored people" in what I assume is an attempt to grant an otherwise drunken, unlikeable character some kind of nobility. The novel itself is written in diary format, albeit a diary that keeps skipping huge chunks of years. The current subplot changes with the paragraph. These problems can probably be written off as being significant to the diary format, and they do get a lot better as Daisy gets older. This format, however, is one of my two main problems with the book, and the other, the finale, has nothing to do with diary format.
The jumps in time from writing every day to skipping years at a time is realistic, I guess, but very confusing and made a lot of character development seem abrupt and unearned. It seems like every time we break from one year to two years in the future we are told about it in retrospect. When we jump from 1953 to 1956 suddenly the main character's mother is dead. I'm sorry, but that is a BIG DEAL. Considering that her mother was apparently in her life again, sending her to a fancy boarding school and keeping her away from her drunkard father, I would assume she had some reaction to this development. She expressed a little regret for having spent the last visit with her mother complaining about school, then casually mentions she had to be dragged, hysterical, from the funeral services. We hear one full page of grief and then it's "Michael and his mother came to see me. He looks great and has grown up a lot" (188). If I hadn't finally caught that bit about her screaming at the preacher "to shut up and get away from Momma" (187) I would have thought she had no emotions at all and was mentioning it for reference purposes only. Later we do a six month jump to 1958 and find out Daisy Fay has lost her best friend, who, it turns out, was raped by her father, got pregnant, and went to work in the potato fields. Daisy's father was run out of town for renting rooms to "colored people." Oh, and "I failed algebra again." Good to know, I guess.
But the big problem, the one that has no excuse, is the finale. When I reached page 291 I suddenly got the feeling I was reading a totally different book. I knew I hadn't, though, because every bloody character to ever have a half second's lime light returns for a surprise Daisy Fay celebration party. We see: Daisy Fay's mentor and his many proteges, a smattering of her friends from the theatre whom I almost didn't recognize because only one of them had any distinguishabe personality, a theatre patron and his mother who had Daisy Fay run spotlight for their Moonlight recital thing, her father, her father's (purely platonic!) life partner Jimmy Snow, a crippled girl who apparently was not crippled and whom we and she have not seen in six years, the daughter of some woman I could not be bothered to remember, named after Daisy Fay, an FBI man who talked to her after the murder of a woman she knew, a grandma and an aunt I had assumed were long dead, the bald boy who was at best a minor character, a formerly insane Jr. Debutante teacher, and a girl she babysat briefly when she was about twelve. That's a total of eighteen named characters (not counting the "Cecilettes," whom we never meet by name and whom I consequently can't be bothered about). Then Daisy Fay gets a note from a former teacher and all her sixth graders, and a letter from the two black women I mentioned earlier. Make that twenty-one.
I just could not believe it. Until now I had thought this was the story of a girl's growing up in a dysfunctional family and finding escape in acting. But suddenly she was getting herself into a Miss Mississippi pageant. "Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man" had suddenly turned into one of those soppy pageant novellas that were so popular in the eighties and nineties. All we needed now was for the plucky dark-haired small-town girl to overcome a lot of hardship and antagonism to get the boy and the spot in the U.S. Women's Olympic Figure Skating team.
The thing was, the pageant felt just thrown in just to give the book a decent climax. I just didn't feel any kind of suspense about it. Kay Bob Benson, Daisy Fay's old nemesis from elementary school, turns up and of course we're supposed to feel that Daisy Fay is the underdog because she doesn't have Kay Bob's flawless posture or her fawning mother or her MONEY DID WE MENTION DAISY FAY IS POOR AND KAY BOB IS RICH? But it didn't feel like we were even supposed to care. The pageant sequence is just page after page of description. Description of swim suit antics, description of talent acts, description of question and answer panels. Then on page 314 we get this:
"SHIT... I WAS MISS MISSISSIPPI!!"
You mean we were supposed to doubt she would be? We later find out that the entire pageant was rigged by the stagehands, who were fond of her grandfather. No one seems to think this was a bad thing, except for the evil pageant director who said she'd rather die than give Daisy Fay the title. Somehow I could see the words "SHE HAS INDOMITABLE SPIRIT DO YOU GET IT DO YOU DO YOU DO YOU" written across the page in the author's arterial blood.
I never did figure out who the titular "Miracle Man" is supposed to be. Her father, I guess? At one point he arranges for her to rise from the dead to cheat townspeople out of money, but he's barely in the finale. He makes one appearance on the very last page, after all that irritating nonsense about the Miss Mississippi pageant. I guess the original title, Coming Attractions, was a better fit.
But you know, outside of the pageant I could forgive the other shortcomings. The book was quirky enough without being too tired. It called to mind "The Glass Castle," actually, in a way that unnerved me a little. I'm almost positive this came first. I liked most of the sub-plots, although many of them didn't seem to mesh well. It seemed less like a carefully crafted saga of a small town and more like a dumping ground for a hundred failed short stories. But they were original enough to hold my attention for a couple hours, and that's more than can be said of a lot these days.