Miss Undine’s Living Room

In times of rapid cultural change, many people must scramble to adapt as traditional standards of behavior are called into question. Although James Wilcox recognizes the serious implications of such a situation, he presents a segment of the society of Tula Springs, Louisiana, from a comic perspective that softens his characters’ pain without entirely removing its dramatic effect. The small town he describes has been severed from its centuries-old mooring in Southern tradition and forced into the uncertainty of the modern world. The clash between custom and modernity offers many opportunities for comic confusion.

Olive Mackie, the central character of the novel, thinks of herself as modern and open-minded, but she is ruled by a hastily acquired set of assumptions not much more enlightened than the old biases of racism, sexism, and rigid class divisions. Although she is often controlled by self-interest, her attempts to do what she considers the “decent” thing make her at once sympathetic and an object of ridicule. Her efforts to win a position in town government after she has been fired from a dead-end job by a spiteful rival are paralleled by her attempts to reconcile her faltering marriage with her desire for romantic fulfillment.

The narrative meanders through many conversations among Olive, her friends, her would-be lover (a diffident dentist), his former wife (a high-powered executive), his mother-in-law (the title character), with...

(The entire section is 430 words.)