The Big Beautiful
By Pamela Duncan
The Dial Press, pp. 389
The "big beautiful" in the title of Graham, N.C., author Pamela Duncan's new novel represents the expanse of ocean and the sea of possibility, yet it also literally encapsulates The Big Beautiful's protagonist, Cassandra Moon. Not your typical chick-lit heroine who is 20-something and a size 4—instead, Cassandra is 45 and closer to 200 pounds. Cassandra was first introduced in Duncan's debut novel, Moon Women (2001), which left readers clamoring to know what life would hold for Cassandra after her mother's death.
Duncan picks up the thread in The Big Beautiful a year and a half after Moon Women ends, when Cassandra is preparing to marry Dennis, a mortician, and settle in Davis, a fictional town set in western North Carolina's Madison County. But something deep inside Cassandra tells her she can't go through with it: Although Dennis would be a kind, intelligent and doting husband, she knows she would be settling if she married him. She wants to find her Mr. Darcy and say no to Mr. Collins (Pride and Prejudice is her favorite movie—Cassandra doesn't read classic novels). She's also tired of being told by her older sister that she's lucky to have found someone at her advanced age and dress size.
So "tired of watching from the service road while everybody else zoomed by on the highway," Cassandra ditches Dennis at the altar and heads east to Salter Path in Bogue Banks, where she made memories as a youngster staying long summers with her mother's younger sister, Aunt May. Although we've seen the runaway bride scenario hundreds of times, Duncan remakes this image with an older and overweight bride, who presumably should be grateful that anyone asked for her hand.
Throughout the novel, Cassandra plays directly against the fashion magazine-encouraged prejudice that a fat chick can't get a desirable man. When she meets her eventual love match, Hector, a 40-ish ferry captain, Cassandra doesn't even go on a diet (although she'd gamely lost 50 pounds before her marriage to Dennis).
Cassandra's Salter Path family teaches her that she shouldn't care only for other people at the expense of her own needs and that her extra weight is no obstacle for her finding love "on the back nine." Duncan does a skillful job in weaving the Ocracoke brogue into the text, so that readers can see and even hear the dialogue as it's spoken, although the characters' fondness for "durn" is a bit grating. The book also could have used some paring down from its 300-plus pages, and the hurricane at the novel's climax is less than inspired.
However, the multiple points of view in the third person never become confusing, and this technique under Duncan's steady hand allows readers to feel compassion for each character. For example, Hector's mother, Doris, is protective of her only son and granddaughter because her young daughter drowned in a storm years ago. Dennis earns our respect by not becoming bitter as he goes to great lengths to win Cassandra back even though her heart is in another place (he cooks her elaborate Italian dinners and takes her on his new Harley Fat Boy). And diabetic Aunt May is the self-proclaimed turtle egg savior of Salter Path, in part because she could never have children of her own.
Above all, Duncan's authentic writing and character exploration allow us to believe in Cassandra's emotional journey from feckless bride to a mature woman who follows her heart while taking physical and emotional risks. Her choices win her the love of a man and make her fall in love with a gritty North Carolina beach town whose pace never outruns Aunt May's beloved turtles.