THE RED HAT CLUB
Smith's hardcover debut, Queen Bee of Mimosa Branch, was a charmer, but her newest offering falls flat. Five middle-aged women in Atlanta, former sorority sisters and now the last bastion of "civilized" (read: white and Southern) society, meet monthly to dish up gossip and drink iced tea in their red hats and purple outfits, in honor of Jenny Joseph's poem "Warning" ("When I am an old woman I shall wear purple/ With a red hat which doesn't go and doesn't suit me"). Strictly abiding by a list of 12 time-honored rules labeled the "Sacred Traditions" ("Tradition 5: Mind your own business; Tradition 10: With the exception of alcoholic beverages, all calories shall be in chewable form"), they serve as each others' support network. When Diane's husband is discovered to be cheating on her—in a condo she paid for—the five decide to turn the tables on him. The plot clips along, but the characters are dislikable enough to sabotage the momentum. The Red Hatters—tragic wronged wife Diane; flawlessly attired corporate bride Teeny; promiscuous divorcée SuSu; graying, happily married Linda; and narrator Georgia, a restless wife dreaming of her first love, are little more than cardboard cutouts. Their obsession with proper behavior grates on the nerves, and Georgia is overwhelmingly prissy: "the possibility annoyed the poo out of me." The flashbacks to the women's sorority days are more successful—one chapter in which two of the girls, terrified of making a friend miss curfew, drive her stuck-in-reverse car five miles home backwards is a chuckler—but nothing makes this disappointing effort stand out from the ranks of Rebecca Wells wannabes. Agent, Mel Berger.(Sept.)
Forecast:A great jacket and title will have readers reaching for the book (released in a first printing of 50,000), but less-than-stellar word of mouth may stifle sales. Regional author tour.