It can take very little to upend a life and send it on an entirely new trajectory. As David Bowie rather cryptically said during a 1999 interview for Uncut, “A spoon might affect my performance.” Maybe he was suggesting that the size and shape of a coffee spoon, and whether it was metal or plastic, would affect how he enjoyed his coffee, which in turn would affect how the interview went. The Bruce family would certainly understand what he’s getting at, as an old, dented soupspoon is the MacGuffin in Pamela Terry’s debut novel, The Sweet Taste of Muscadines.
The spoon is found in the hand of Geneva Bruce as she lies dead in the family’s muscadine arbor one hot summer morning in Georgia. Nobody, including her three grown children, knows what she was doing with it, but they find out soon enough. To say that the little spoon affects the performance of this genteel Southern family is an understatement.
The Bruce children are narrator Lila; her jovial brother, Henry; and sister Abby, who was Geneva’s favorite. Abby is most upset by their mother’s death, and she shows up drunk to the memorial, wearing a fuchsia suit and teetering on stiletto heels, her hair dyed screaming red. She manages to curse out her second-grade teacher before Henry hustles her from the scene. In moments like this, the book feels like a mashup of Fried Green Tomatoes and You Can’t Go Home Again with a sprinkling of William Faulkner.
Abby is in such bad shape that Lila and Henry decide to answer the lingering questions about their mother—indeed, their parents—without her. The trail leads them first to the Carolina low country, then to the beautiful but rugged highlands of Scotland. One of the many pleasures of the book is Terry’s descriptions of details like the lushness of gardenias and crepe myrtles, and the way steam rises from a Georgia blacktop after a hard summer rain. When the story moves to Scotland, she’s just as skilled at describing fierce sea storms, the welcome coziness of a bed-and-breakfast and the colors and textures of tweeds and tartans.
But Terry’s real focus is forgiveness, radical acceptance or even what some might call grace. A reader might wonder if they could ever be as forgiving as the Bruce children are of their parents’ transgressions. The Sweet Taste of Muscadines encourages readers to believe that they could.