JOINT REVIEW: Sweet Tea and Sympathy by Molly Harper
Beloved author Molly Harper launches a brand-new contemporary romance series, Southern Eclectic, with this story of a big-city party planner who finds true love in a small Georgia town.
Nestled on the shore of Lake Sackett, Georgia is the McCready Family Funeral Home and Bait Shop. (What, you have a problem with one-stop shopping?) Two McCready brothers started two separate businesses in the same building back in 1928, and now it’s become one big family affair. And true to form in small Southern towns, family business becomes everybody’s business.
Margot Cary has spent her life immersed in everything Lake Sackett is not. As an elite event planner, Margot’s rubbed elbows with the cream of Chicago society, and made elegance and glamour her business. She’s riding high until one event goes tragically, spectacularly wrong. Now she’s blackballed by the gala set and in dire need of a fresh start—and apparently the McCreadys are in need of an event planner with a tarnished reputation.
As Margot finds her footing in a town where everybody knows not only your name, but what you had for dinner last Saturday night and what you’ll wear to church on Sunday morning, she grudgingly has to admit that there are some things Lake Sackett does better than Chicago—including the dating prospects. Elementary school principal Kyle Archer is a fellow fish-out-of-water who volunteers to show Margot the picture-postcard side of Southern living. The two of them hit it off, but not everybody is happy to see an outsider snapping up one of the town’s most eligible gentleman. Will Margot reel in her handsome fish, or will she have to release her latest catch?
We both had this book on the TBR so we decided to review it together. ~ Jayne & Kaetrin
Kaetrin: Sweet Tea and Sympathy picks up a good few years after the events of Save a Truck, Ride a Redneck. It works as a stand-alone however and it’s not necessary to have read the novella to understand it.
Jayne: I noticed that too. At first I wasn’t sure about the ages of Marianne and Carl’s children but then when she tells Margot that her romance has lasted twenty years I thought – whoa, this is different. Usually a full length book follows a starter novella like day after night. Beyond the fact that the whole McCready family is once again unleashed on the reader – though at a more leisurely pace than in the novella, I agree it’s fine to start with this one.
Kaetrin: Margot Cary left Lake Sackett, Georgia as a three-year-old child when her mother, Linda, left her father, Stan McCready. Linda wanted more from life than Stan or Lake Sackett could ever offer but also, Stan was an alcoholic who couldn’t get his shit together so she had good reason to leave. After Linda and Margot left, Margot had no further contact with her father. Linda eventually remarried Gerald Cary, a doctor who adopted Margo and had a distant but not-unaffectionate relationship with her. Margot works in event planning and is just about to earn her partner position at Elite Elegance, a prestigious event planning company in Chicago, when it all goes horribly wrong. In short order, Margot is left without a job and without a home and finding new places for both becomes increasingly problematic because she’s basically been blackballed by the event planning industry. Out of the blue comes an offer from her long-forgotten family in Lake Sackett. The McCready Family Funeral Home and Bait Shop is in need of someone to help with the planning of funerals (they’re events, right?) and the job, though low paying, comes with room and board. The cost of living in Lake Sackett is way lower than in Chicago so the drop in pay, while still a lot, isn’t as bad as it could be. Margot accepts because she really doesn’t have a choice and plans to hide out in Georgia for a few months and then head back to the city and her career when the furor dies down or some other scandal takes its place.
Jayne: When I read the blurb, I sort of cringed when I got to the bit about an event going wrong. Too often these scenes are played for maximum heroine pratfall effect but this one didn’t hit me that way. Yeah, it’s the stuff of a hundred YouTube videos but Margot didn’t end up on her ass, covered in shrimp with flamingos pecking at her. In fact, as we see later on, someone is actually impressed with how she handled it all.
Kaetrin: Yes, it was a debacle but actually it wasn’t played to make her look incompetent or humiliated. The situation got out of control when a man didn’t listen to the woman in charge and follow her directions. Margot is left to pick up the pieces. I’d be surprised if readers didn’t relate pretty well to the experience actually.
Even though Margot is a Lake Sackett native, she’s lived in Chicago for so long, she lost all trace of her Georgia accent and she has no memory of life before the city. The McCready family compound is a bit of a culture shock for her.
Duffy had thoughtfully parked his truck halfway between her little dollhouse and his more rugged man-cabin, which seemed to have a giant fishing lure–shaped birdfeeder and a set of wind chimes made of beer cans. Margot was glad she’d met Duffy the day before, because she probably would have judged him pretty hard based on the wind chime thing.
In Lake Sackett Margot finds the family she’s always longed for. Great Aunt Tootie and Great Uncle EJJ, Aunt Leslie and Uncle Bob, scary Aunt Donna, cousins Duffy, Frankie, Marianne and her father, Stan. While Margot bonds quickly with Frankie and Marianne, they all being the same gender and generation, things with Stan are rocky for a lot of the book.
Jayne: I realize that Kentucky native Harper is laying things on thick with the “Chicago fish out of GA waters” thing to emphasize how long Margot has been gone and how far out of touch she is with her past but as a native Southerner it started to get me a teeny bit riled at yet another condescending thought or comment Margot says. I had to keep taking deep breaths and making sure my “company smile” was on as Margot slowly reconnects with her roots and discovers the joys of the South. And no, we don’t deep fry everything, calling all women regardless of marital status “Miss” is a mark of respect though yes, Southern women do say “bless her heart” a lot and it can have two meanings.
The sweeter you bless someone, the more you hate them.
Kaetrin: Oh, that’s interesting you say that. As an Australian it seemed to me to be a gentle good-hearted type of commentary rather than mean but that’s obviously not always how you took it? Good to know.
Working at a funeral home is a bit of a learning curve in a few ways for Margot and some of her induction is a surprise.
“Now, don’t worry, I’m not going to just throw you in the deep end on your own,” he assured her. “We’ll start you off with paperwork, a few casket catalogues, how to pull a widow out of the grave she just swan-dived into.”
“It only happens every once in a while, but you need to know how to pull somebody out safely, because if you don’t lift with your legs, you can really hurt your back.”
Jayne: Yes! I laughed at that one. It also shows Margot that while she knows everything about event planning for fancy Big City do’s, here she is still learning. Later in the book, once she’s on her feet, we see her satisfaction in learning this new world and doing well in it.
Kaetrin: Margot also meets a man with family issues of his own – school principal, Kyle Archer. The romance is fairly understated with the book really only telling the beginnings of it. While I was confident they would be very happy together I think the ending is more a HFN than a HEA. There was still a lot to be worked out between them. Still, what there was was sweet and charming.
Kyle paused just before the long, slow slide into her and said, “This may not last long. But what I lack in initial endurance, I will make up for in enthusiasm and repeat performances.”
Margot’s answering cackle was stopped short as he thrust home and pulled the blankets over their heads.
Jayne: One thing I also liked is that Kyle hasn’t made any “I’ll never love again” vows after the loss of his wife. He just doesn’t know if he’s ready – points there for honesty. Margot has two uninspired marriage examples to go by and isn’t sure she really wants to start any kind of long term relationship either. Plus there’s the kids. I actually liked June and Hazel who aren’t plot moppets but also that Margot doesn’t immediately change her opinions about children in her life. She’s not sure she really wants that and is honest back with Kyle about it. Kyle is a good dad who sometimes struggles with hair braiding or products but who puts his girls first.
Kaetrin: The listing on NetGalley said “women’s fiction” (a term I dislike but we all understand what it means so I use it anyway) and it’s accurate. There is a strong romantic thread within the book but it isn’t prominent enough for the book to be considered a contemporary romance. In that way, this book is more like And One Last Thing than My Bluegrass Baby – both of which I enjoyed very much. Sweet Tea and Sympathy is far more about Margot finding herself, a home and what makes her truly happy than anything else.
Jayne: When I realized I was a third of the way through the book and Kyle had only briefly appeared and not even been named yet and that the only POV is Margot’s, I remembered the “Women’s Fiction” label. Due to the added complexity of children in Kyle and Margot’s relationship, I actually thought the HFN – though clearly headed towards a HEA – ending was just fine. The use of duct tape in their reconciliation is cute and I agree with what cousin-in-law Carl says – it is the solution to all problems.
Kaetrin: I liked that neither Linda nor Stan were painted saints or devils – each was far more complicated than that and the narrative acknowledged good things can live side by side with flaws and faults. Linda was apparently a generally unhappy woman who always wanted more than she had and who cared too much about appearances. But she did the right thing in getting her daughter away from a situation which could have become very bad. Stan, by the time Margot meets him again as an adult, has been sober for more than 20 years and he’s not the man her was when Linda left. There were some things that were left hanging for me. For example I never understood why Stan allowed Linda’s second husband to adopt Margot. And there were some inconsistencies in how Stan talked about what he wanted and hoped for and what actually happened that were never reconciled for me. I thought it might be one of those stories where Margot had not enough or not correct information but that wasn’t the case either.
Jayne: I had the same feeling that the parents were good and bad. Margot finally realizes that Linda did the right thing in taking her out of this family situation and I felt that Margot does make a bit of peace with her mother’s memory for that. For me, Stan’s explanation to Margot about why he didn’t blame Linda for leaving and taking Margot was enough and realistic but then I am the daughter of an alcoholic and I can only wish my father had gotten sober. My mother did have choices to make and luckily for me she was parent enough but I mourn what I know I didn’t and honestly could never have had from a relationship with him.
In terms of the lack of information, there were a few times when Stan seemed angry at Margot for never trying to reconnect with him but my feeling was he never tried either once he knew she was an adult. As the book ends, I feel they are headed in the right direction though.
Kaetrin: One of the things I always love about Molly Harper books is the humour. They take a delightful poke at some of the culture and food for which the South is [in]famous but it’s done in such a loving and clearly insider way it never seemed to me to cross the line into offensive stereotyping.
“Is there any food available in this town that isn’t soaked in pork fat?”
“Nope,” Tootie said, shaking her snowy head. “It’s in the bylaws. If we’re not feedin’ someone pork products, we get all twitchy and just start throwin’ biscuits at innocent bystanders.”
“Is it in the same bylaws that command you all to carry Tupperware with you at all times?”
“What do y’all carry your food in up north? Your bare hands?”
Jayne: ::Grin:: We have similar taste in quotes. To go along with my (slight) impatience with Margot returning to her Southern roots, I was delighted with Tootie, Marianne and Frankie. Don’t mess with Southern women. We will eventually get even as Margot spectacularly does at the end when she deep-sixes a woman who’s been a thorn in everyone’s side for years – small town politics at it’s
best worst. And by the end Margot has been converted back to a Southerner whose mouth waters at the pig smoke (in my neck of the woods we call it a pig pickin’) and who gleefully digs into Aunt Leslie’s deep fried Hostess Cupcake.
Kaetrin: Sweat Tea and Sympathy was warm and cosy and full of Southern charm. Grade: B
Jayne: I’d agree with your description and would give it a B as well. I do hope there’s a book in store for Frankie. A friend of mine loves “Sharknado” movies too and any man who gets involved with Frankie better be aware she knows how to use a skull saw. I also wonder if there is a secondary romance in store for scary Aunt Donna.
Kaetrin: I want a book for Frankie too! And the line about Frankie not using the word “lure” when going to talk to children and driving a van was classic Uncle Bob. LOL