Beth Hoffman’s new novel, Looking for Me, opens with a scene from the past featuring a heated conversation between the book’s then-thirty-six-year-old protagonist, Teddi, and her mother, Franny. Visiting her childhood farm along Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, Teddi listens as her mother nags her to trade her antique store for “a job with a future.” Teddi had spent more than half her life hunting for furniture to repair and sell, and just as many years defending her choice. “I’m not a junk picker, Mama,” she explains, yet again. “If you went to an estate sale or an auction with me, you’d see a bunch of trash. But you know what I see? Endless possibilities. And I see history, too. It’s amazing how old furniture speaks to me. The older it is, the more it has to say.”
Flash forward to 1990, and the same could be said of Teddi’s own family history. Having lost her father to cancer four years earlier, she is now shocked by her mother’s fatal stroke. In the wake of this loss, she attempts to understand Franny’s unhappiness and anger. More urgently, she seeks clues about what has become of her brother, Josh, who disappeared as a teenager. The heart of this book lies in Teddi’s dogged pursuit to unearth long-buried secrets and the ensuing life-changing revelations.
Looking for Me is as earnest as its title, which some readers might view as slightly misleading. In most ways, Teddi’s already done the work of self-discovery, has already found her true calling. As a high-school senior she taught herself how to strip and paint furniture by studying a library book. Then she refinished a table she’d bought for one dollar and sold it to a Charleston antiques dealer for a hundred. After graduation, she wrote a goodbye note to her parents and left for Charleston: “My heart went wild with uncertainty, yet I couldn’t ignore my longing for adventure,” she remembers. The only difficulty is leaving her brother. “The sight of him brought tears to my eyes. I pressed my palm against the window, and he did the same against his. We stayed like that for a long moment.” As Teddi drives away, she can see him watching her, still holding his hand against the glass.
The question of what happened to Josh drives the book’s dramatic action. A passionate naturalist, he has been gone for decades, but Teddi believes he is still alive, surviving in the wilds of the Red River Gorge, where she suspects he is the mysterious person responsible for taking out poachers. “Every bit of logic tells me he’s dead,” she confides to her friend. But in her chest, she says, “I have the feeling he’s alive.”
Hoffman’s bestselling 2010 debut novel, Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, delves into similar territory, with female protagonists who are forced to reckon with familial loss. Both books take place in the South and feature chivalry, friendly small talk, iced tea, good manners, and respect for hard work and older generations. A former interior designer, Hoffman lives in Kentucky, and her wealth of knowledge about both antiques and the Red River Gorge is on lush, colorful display in Looking for Me. This is a redemptive novel about family secrets and loyalty, and the necessity of revisiting personal tragedy in order to overcome its pain. Reckoning with the past is what makes it possible for someone to look at her own family and see what Teddi sees in damaged furniture: endless possibilities.
Beth Hoffman will discuss Looking for Me at The Booksellers at Laurelwood in Memphis on May 29, 2013, at 7 p.m.