Serving as a bridesmaid to a raging Bridezilla whose caterer has just been murdered is bad enough. But what if that Bridezilla is your 62-year-old mother? • In Mama Gets Hitched, that's the situation park ranger and amateur sleuth Mace Bauer finds herself in. This is Florida native and former journalist Deborah Sharp's third novel set in the fictional Central Florida town of Himmarshee (a.k.a. Okeechobee), after Mama Does Time and Mama Rides Shotgun.
As those titles suggest, although Mace narrates the books, Mama loves center stage. And what better way to take it than planning your big fat Southern wedding?
Mama's had some practice; New Jersey transplant Salvatore Provenza will be her fifth husband. She remembers the first one fondly; he was a good father to Mace and her sisters, bossy school principal Maddie and gentle librarian Marty, before he died young. The other exes, though, she just refers to by number: " 'Poor No. 4,' Mama said. 'He didn't seem as good a choice on dry land as he had on the high seas. Maybe I shouldn't have mixed champagne with Dramamine.' "
Despite her checkered marital history, Mama is a classic steel magnolia who can deal a social death blow with one well-timed "bless her heart." She has high hopes for husband No. 5, and she has no intention of letting anyone tell her a fifth wedding maybe ought to be a quiet little affair. She's going all out with a long guest list and a Gone With the Wind theme (maybe not a good omen when you think about how Rhett and Scarlett's relationship turned out). She's busy lining up hoop skirts and parasols in sherbet pastels for her appalled daughters and a tiny top hat for Teensy, her ring-bearer Pomeranian.
Pitching in on the wedding planning front is Sal's "cousin-in-law" C'ndee Ciancio. Her "fanciful use of apostrophes" and Jersey Shore fashion sense rub Mama the wrong way, but she's determined to put up with C'ndee because Sal is fond of her.
And after that caterer, Pig Out Barbecue owner Ronnie Hodges, turns up stabbed to death in the kitchen of the VFW hall just about the time Mama was supposed to taste his samples for the reception menu, she really needs C'ndee's help to get the wedding show on the road. Things get interesting when C'ndee's dazzlingly handsome, charming nephew Tony breezes into town to help — and even more interesting when rumors of his mob connections back in New Jersey surface.
Besides trying to keep Mama under control and comforting Ronnie's widow, the enigmatic Alice, Mace is wrangling her own sporadic romance with smoldering police detective Carlos Martinez and wondering why he's having a drink at the town's busiest restaurant with a mysterious tall blond woman in motorcycle leathers instead of her. And when she's not taking clueless tourists on nature walks at the park where she works, she's trying to figure out who wanted Ronnie dead, and why.
If you've read any of Janet Evanovich's books about bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, you'll recognize a similar pattern in Mama Gets Hitched, albeit transplanted from Trenton, N.J., to small-town Florida. The murder mystery helps move the plot, but it's secondary to the antics of the affectionately drawn cast of eccentrics who populate the book.
Sharp has a finely tuned ear for how real Southerners (as opposed to the cartoonish ones from TV and movies) speak, and she's deft at bringing those rhythms and phrasings into her dialogue without needing a bunch of overwritten dialect.
She's also a keen observer of the dynamics of small-town life, where keeping track of everybody else's business is job No. 1, as well as family relationships. The wisecracking call-and-response among Mama, Mace and her sisters always rings true.
Best of all, the funny but never mean spoofing of over-the-top weddings will taste like sweet revenge to any woman who has ever preceded a bride up the aisle wearing a fashion disaster — and that's a mighty big crowd of us. Pour yourself a glass of pink wine and enjoy Mama Gets Hitched.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.