Now that her six children are grown, but hardly what she would call settled, Ethyl Mae Coco’s main concern is promoting Pro Arts, a chamber music group which she manages and in which she plays cello. As the book opens, the group is scheduled to perform at the black-tie opening of the town’s first BurgerMat. Such are the goings on in Tula Springs, Louisiana, where no event is too small to cause a stir.
The musicians of Pro Arts are memorable, offbeat characters such as George Henry, the third of Mrs. Coco’s six children, who plays first violin and anticipates his second marriage to Heidi, the local hot-tub saleswoman. Two six-packs of beer a day and only a bit of gray frizz on the top of his head make him appear older than his thirty-seven years. Mrs. Coco (as she is always referred to) cannot quite believe that someone so large and so old could have been her baby. Duk-Soo Yoon, a Korean completing a doctoral dissertation on tourism, plays second violin and struggles with his undeclared love for Mrs. Coco.
The title of the book comes from the street North Gladiola, where the Cocos reside. About midway through the book, Duk-Soo ponders the name:Take North Gladiola, for instance. It was in the southern half of Tula Springs, and furthermore, there existed no South Gladiola, no Gladiola even. What did North in this case signify? And why Gladiola? The street was not a flower, not even a metaphorical flower, being as it was in the heart of the business district. Was it named after another North Gladiola by a homesick settler from Virginia or Illinois, thus making North Gladiola not a “here,” after all, but a “there”?
Nothing more is made of North Gladiola, and it is left to the reader to ponder its significance, if any, as the book’s title.
At an engagement in a mental institution, Mrs. Coco meets Ray Jr., a seventeen-year-old schizophrenic who inexplicably appeals to her. With this meeting, her life becomes considerably more complicated. This mixed-up, uncontrollable young man takes on a central role when Duk-Soo agrees to live with and care for him. At the Cocos one night, while briefly unsupervised, Ray Jr. murders a Chihuahua, believing it to be a killer rat. Duk-Soo plans an elaborate cover-up, mistakenly believing the tiny dog to be Mrs. Coco’s beloved pet. Actually Tee Tee, the Chihuahua, belonged to the Tiger Unisex Hair Styling Salon, next door to the Cocos on North Gladiola Street. The dog had been a point of dispute between Mrs. Coco and the Tiger Unisex for some time. Thus the salon views Tee Tee’s disappearance suspiciously, casting Mrs. Coco in the role of murderer.
Because of all the difficulty, Ray Jr. is returned to the institution. Duk-Soo attempts to make his love known to Mrs. Coco, but she, shocked at the very idea of it, cuts him off. After all, she is fifty-seven years old, has been married to Mr. Coco for forty years, and is the mother of six grown children. She knows that she should fire Duk-Soo, because he is even a terrible musician, but there is too much going on in Tula Springs just now. For example, it is time for the annual beauty pageant, and, according to the town gossip, Pro Arts is not being asked to perform at the event because of its suspected involvement in murder; Heidi, a heroin addict, is in a drug rehabilitation...