Rush, the much-anticipated fourth novel by Lisa Patton, opens with a trenchant statement by Miss Pearl, the first of its three narrators: “I work for four hundred and thirty-eight white ladies in a three-story mansion, not a one of them over the age of twenty-two.”
Pearl, a black woman in her early forties, is the housekeeper of a fictional sorority house at the University of Mississippi. Domestic work is not a career she had envisioned for herself as a high-achieving student. But her life “jumped the track,” as she puts it, during her own freshman year at Ole Miss, and here she is cleaning house for college girls for only $11.50 an hour—with no paid leave or benefits—after twenty-five years of loyal service. “The only thing keeping me working here is the girls,” she says. “I love them like they are my own daughters.”
The second narrator, Wilda Woodcock, is a white woman from Memphis who is on the verge of moving her daughter Ellie into Martin Hall for her freshman year. “I am one of those women who compares herself to others,” Wilda begins. “Yes, I’m well aware of what healthy people think about that, and I agree, it’s exhausting.” Wilda and Haynes, her husband, are down-to-earth, generous, and progressive-minded people. They are also a bit cloistered, literally and figuratively, in the upper-middle class environs of East Memphis.
The Woodcocks are a quintessential Ole Miss family; Wilda and Haynes met there, and Ellie is their third child to attend the university. When Wilda becomes reacquainted with her former sorority sister Lilith Whitmore, the reader meets Rush‘s icy villain. Lilith’s supreme confidence and outrageous social pretensions plunge Wilda into a pit of painful insecurity—and it’s not something she can easily escape, as their daughters are now roommates.
The third narrator, Cali Watkins, from the “tee-tiny” town of Blue Mountain, Mississippi, is attending college on a full scholarship. Raised with limited financial means but the loving support of her grandparents, Cali has dreamed all her life of becoming governor of Mississippi by way of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College at the University of Mississippi: “My high school guidance counselor had encouraged me to apply for scholarships at more prestigious universities much farther away. As much as I wanted to get away from Blue Mountain—Population 650—I didn’t want to be that far away from my grandparents,” she says. “Besides, I’ve been wanting to be an Ole Miss Rebel since I was a little girl.”
Rush follows these and other characters through recruitment season , in and out of a bewildering web of $10,000 dorm rooms, “coffee tastings,” and a tailgate party featuring chandeliers, an omelet station, and a full bar complete with white-jacketed bartenders. But when the value and dignity of Miss Pearl’s position at the Alpha Delta Beta house is called into question, the sorority is mobilized to address more substantive concerns than fashion and football.
Patton, a Memphis-born novelist based in Nashville, is well-known for inserting semiautobiographical details in her novels. Her Dixie series, about a Memphis girl turned Vermont innkeeper, cemented her reputation as one of the South’s leading comic novelists. But in an afterword, Patton makes it clear that Rush, while written in a breezy style and full of humor, is intended to disrupt the norm of wage insecurity among domestic employees working tirelessly on behalf of Greek students at universities all over the South and, likely, the entire country.
And while it would be a stretch to say that Rush has a feminist agenda, it nonetheless aces the Bechdel test: its characters are women who spend the majority of their time talking to each other about nearly everything under the sun except men. In spite of what may seem like a taffeta cotillion gown of a setting, this is a novel of great substance, clear-eyed and genteelly gritty, with a moral that’s difficult to miss or dismiss. Rush is a dishy doorstop with a big, big heart and a whole lot to say.
Kathryn Justice Leache lives Memphis, her hometown. Her life among books has included work as a librarian and stints as a bookseller at Square Books and The Booksellers at Laurelwood. She currently works at Novel., an independent bookstore in Memphis.