With her second novel, Learning to Speak Southern, Lindsey Rogers Cook joins the longstanding literary tradition of writing about the adventures of expatriates. This novel, however, deals with the less romantic side of the story: What happens to the traveler who comes home?
Cook’s protagonist, Lex, has spent her 20s traveling nonstop, caught in a cycle of picking up odd jobs, engaging in drunken hookups with other ex-pats, learning new languages to fuel her linguistic obsession, then leaving on a whim to do it all over again somewhere else. This itinerant lifestyle allows her to keep an arm’s length between those she calls her “stranger-friends” and her troubled past.
Lex was born and raised in Memphis, and she feels nothing but resentment toward the South, a place with a painful history where she experienced her own incredible hurt. “In the years since I left Tennessee, I’ve tried on hundreds of personalities, pasts, and backgrounds,” Lex says, “in the hope that one day I’d find answers to these questions that fit. The real ones never did.”
Since graduating high school, Lex has avoided returning home at all costs. She succeeds, at first, in leaving behind the trauma she experienced in Memphis — from her tumultuous relationship with her parents to the death of her mother — until she experiences a profound tragedy while living in Bali.
The book opens there as Lex miscarries, alone in a hospital, abandoned by the father of the baby, a man she barely knew. The loss of her child triggers a series of events that forces Lex to confront the pain and anger she’s been trying so hard to outrun.
When Lex arrives back in Memphis at the behest of her godmother, Cami, she plans to stay only a few days, long enough to get back on her feet, but not so long as to risk encountering those she left behind — and those who left her. Then Cami reveals the real reason she told Lex to come home, giving her a letter written by Lex’s mother that contradicts everything Lex thought she knew about her family’s past. When Cami promises another letter each day she stays in Memphis, Lex knows she has no choice. In her mother’s writing, she might finally find the answers she’d been searching for everywhere except home.
As Lex reads her mother’s letters, Learning to Speak Southern jumps back and forth between the present and the past. A whole history unfurls, telling a story in which it is much harder for Lex to tell the good guys from the bad. The novel speaks to what in family is inescapable and what is unconditional. It shows that parents are people before they are parents, and it implicitly calls on readers to hold space for forgiveness and growth, even when facing people or places that have caused pain.
Cook’s conversational narrative style allows readers to be fully immersed in both the story and Lex’s mind as she grapples with her complicated internal conflict. We see her navigate her shame and rage toward her family’s heritage and the South as a whole, wanting both to be better than she believes they can be.
Cook handles these complex feelings with unfettered honesty, painting a picture that is somehow both devastating and cathartic. By only gradually revealing the past Lex’s mother wished to conceal, she crafts a story rife with plot twists up until the very last pages. And if there is always more to learn, there must always be room to hope.
Bianca Sass, a former Chapter 16 intern, is a writer and Nashville native currently studying English and law at Amherst College. Her work has been published in Chapter 16 and Pfeiffer University’s The Phoenix, and she received the Collin Armstrong Poetry Prize and the Peter Burnett Howe Prize for fiction.