What would you imagine a nice lady from Memphis would do after retiring from teaching high school English?
If you're Elizabeth Stuckey-French, you'd imagine her moving to Tallahassee, assuming the name of a character from a Cold War science fiction movie and plotting the revenge killing of a doctor.
And you'd make it into one funny story.
Stuckey-French, who teaches fiction writing at Florida State University and has published a novel (Mermaids on the Moon) and a short-story collection (The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa), rolls out a darkly humorous tale of suburban shenanigans in her new novel, The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady.
The title character is that nice English teacher, Marylou Ahearn. But in Tallahassee, where she has moved into a pleasant neighborhood called Canterbury Hills, she's known as Nancy ("Call me Nance") Archer. It's a moniker borrowed from the "giant (much taller than 50 feet) vaguely annoyed-looking heroine" of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, a notably awful 1958 movie about a woman who grows enormous after contact with radiation and goes after her cheating spouse.
Although she's barely a 10th that tall, Marylou feels they're "sisters in some strange way" because of her own encounter with radiation. While pregnant in 1953, she was — without her knowledge or consent — given a radioactive cocktail to drink as part of a medical experiment. (Stuckey-French based this part of the story on a real experiment conducted at a prenatal clinic at Vanderbilt University.) The daughter she was carrying died of cancer at age 8; her once-happy marriage crumbled soon after.
So, half a century later, thanks to (what else?) Google, she has tracked down Wilson Spriggs, the doctor who urged her to drink those "vitamins." Also retired, he's living with his daughter's family in Canterbury Hills, where Marylou/Nance can stalk him when she walks her corgi.
Although her plan is fueled by plenty of understandable rage, Nance is short on specifics, having no experience in killing people. And she's disappointed to discover that Spriggs is in the early stages of dementia and seems to have no memory of her connection to the clinical trial that wrecked her life — which sucks some of the sweetness out of revenge.
But Nance hits upon the idea of doing to Spriggs what he did to her: ruining his family. She has seen them and even met some of them on her dog-walking tours: Spriggs' busy daughter Caroline and her hard-working husband, Vic; beautiful Ava, a college student; high school science whiz Otis; and gregarious, athletic, 13-year-old Suzi. To Nance, they look like a family right out of a storybook; why not give them a dose of Spriggs' own medicine?
Of course, Nance has no idea what life is really like in the Witherspoon house, any more than any of us knows our neighbors. Beautiful Ava and brilliant Otis have both been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that affects their social interactions and can lead to obsessions like Ava's fanatical interest in Elvis. Caroline is stressed out and depressed over caring for them as well as for her father, a state of exhaustion that's intensified by the fierce onset of menopause. Vic, who has his own obsession with hurricanes, is feeling so shut out by his family that he's flirting dangerously with a co-worker. And Suzi is so overwhelmed by trying to be the perfect kid she's ready to run away.
Stuckey-French deploys a lot of dark materials in this book: not just Nance's tragic losses but the Witherspoons' fracturing marriage and their children's disabilities, not to mention sexual predators and killer storms. And that nuclear breeder-reactor Otis is secretly building in the shed out back? That can't end well.
Not necessarily the stuff of comedy, but Stuckey-French makes her domestic satire work precisely by not backing away from its darkness — and also by giving us characters who are complex and believable enough to stay with even when the going gets weird. She shows a sure hand with characters across a range of ages — from the Witherspoon kids, who are real, self-conscious, terrifyingly heedless teenagers, to Nance, with her occasional cluelessness and long-honed survival skills.
Just as we come to know the Witherspoons, so does Nance. Her petty plans to annoy Caroline and Vic by getting Ava interested in getting on America's Next Top Model and cajoling Suzi to attend a megachurch have unexpectedly dreadful consequences. While Caroline tries to unravel Nance's true identity, Nance herself is scrambling to undo her revenge — and discovering her own feelings about the family.
Not that revenge isn't taken, but it finds its true objective. And somebody ends up planning a wedding at Graceland.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.