I wasn’t really sure what I was expecting when I picked up this book. It’s another one of those novels that is difficult to pin down in specific words, but I shall do my best. I haven’t seen the Fried Green Tomatoes film, but I am assured it’s both good and different from the novel.
Out at a nursing home in Birmingham, Alabama, Eva Crouch meets the delightful Mrs Ninny Threadgoode. Filled with stories of her home in Whistle Stop, Ninny tells Eva all the gossip of the old railroad town, from the mysterious train robber Railroad Bill to the murder of a fancy businessman from Georgia. As she reminisces about the past and the delicious foods and friendships at the town’s heart – the Whistle Stop Café – the two women become friends, lighting a fire in Eva she didn’t know she had and leading her to question everything she’s felt about her own life.
Essentially, the plot of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café can be boiled down to simply being about a small town and the prejudices and loves and losses that exist within it. It follows different strands of the families in the town to build a picture of what it was like. Written in a variety of different ways – some with Ninny Threadgoode and Eva at the nursing home, some as weekly bulletins from the past, some as the actual events that occurred in the town – the novel explores the lives from both the inside and the out. Without being too sentimental, and not wanting to label this novel as a romance (which it isn’t), this is a book about love in its many forms.
Although the Whistle Stop Café is regarded as the centre of the book, this didn’t really ring true for me. Because of the style, it seems the relationship between Ninny and Eva is where the whole thing holds together. It is only through their discussions that we being to unravel Whistle Stop, and it is through their developing bond that the true beauty of the story shines through.
When it comes to the complexities of themes within Fried Green Tomatoes, there’s a lot to get through. We cover everything from racism, abuse, disability, sexuality and feminism, some more successfully than others. Given the Deep South setting, the racism is thick and painful to read, even from such simple things as the ‘colored’ population of Troutville on the other side of the tracks is forced to get food from the back door not the front at the café. The feminism, rooted firmly in Eva Crouch’s world, is another force within the story, carried by Eva and the butch Idgie. I will carry the chapter of Eva wondering why men are so obsessed with testicles with me for the rest of my life, a smile on my lips.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect was the relationship between Idgie and Ruth. It is clear that this is an important thing – especially given the time we’re talking about, 1920s-1960s – and is actually something the book is renowned for. And yet it is only referred to somewhat directly in a couple of chapters, but for the most part remains subtle and underdeveloped. I’m not asking for things to be spelled out, but given the setting it seems remarkable how relaxed everyone is that these two women are quite clearly in a non-platonic relationship.
In that sense a lot of things do seem kind of rushed. The murder and trial within the novel – highlighted on the cover blurb, indicating its importance – is over in a matter of pages and feels pretty unremarkable. I wonder if in an attempt to cover so many deep and complex topics, the true opportunity to explore them became lost as the page count racked up.
That being said, the book is a wonderful read. The connections between the characters and the events that surround them are as funny as they are dark: the goings-on of the Dill Pickle Club balanced with the Ku Klux Klan showing up at the café’s door. There were definite moments when I teared up from genuine emotional attachment to these characters and wanting them to succeed as well as the profundity of situations that many of us can relate to.
As a vision into the life of the South in America, Fried Green Tomatoes is a touching story that gives you that warm, comfortable feeling, like settling down with old friends.