Billington, Texas, might be a small town, but readers of Bobby Finger’s exquisite debut novel, The Old Place, will quickly fall in love with this boondock burg and its make-you-laugh, break-your-heart characters.
“Even a town in decline never really stops growing,” writes Finger early in the novel. “People may leave, but their stories remain, reverberating in the bones of all those left behind.” That’s certainly the case in Billington, where generations of comings and goings pulsate with bitter secrets, old hurts and unresolved feelings—in other words, small-town drama at its best.
Reminiscent of Alice Elliott Dark’s novel Fellowship Point (a tale of two New England dowagers), The Old Place focuses on best friends and neighbors Mary Alice and Ellie and their deeply intertwined past and present. Both lost their sons immediately after the boys’ high school graduation, and Finger artfully doles out just enough tidbits from the neighbors’ pasts to keep tension high.
Mary Alice has been forced to retire from teaching math at Billington High, and she hardly knows what to do beyond having Ellie over for coffee every morning. Their new routine is upended when Mary Alice’s sister, Katherine, unexpectedly arrives from Atlanta, delivering bombshell news that Mary Alice has desperately been trying to avoid. The big reveal gradually builds toward an explosive conclusion at the much-anticipated annual church picnic.
One of the most remarkable things about The Old Place is how Finger, a 30-something Texas native and Brooklyn podcaster (“Who? Weekly”), has so superbly captured the hearts and souls of this trio of 60-ish women. The novel is an extended meditation on the great joys and enduring heartaches of long-term relationships—and the hard work that’s required to maintain these bonds. Finger is fully cognizant of his characters’ many flaws, noting, for instance, that stubborn Mary Alice has at times been capable of raising “so much hell they almost had to call in an exorcist.” His portrayal of Mary Alice and Katherine’s love-hate relationship over the years is particularly poignant.
A broad supporting cast adds depth, drama and even romance to the mix. There’s also plenty of humor, with lines like “And then something wonderful happened: he sawed his damn finger off.” Mary Alice’s teaching replacement, Josie Kerr, is a newcomer to Billington, and she provides an outsider’s point of view. (She also seems like an intriguing candidate to anchor a sequel.)
Finger has created his own kind of Lake Wobegon: a vibrant literary locale that readers will be loath to leave. Here’s hoping for more tantalizing, tempestuous tales.