The Fixer Upper

The delightful New York Times bestselling author returns with a hilarious novel about one woman’s quest to redo an old house . . . and her life.

After her boss in a high-powered Washington public relations firm is caught in a political scandal, fledgling lobbyist Dempsey Jo Killebrew is left almost broke, unemployed, and homeless. Out of options, she reluctantly accepts her father’s offer to help refurbish Birdsong, the old family place he recently inherited in Guthrie, Georgia. All it will take, he tells her, is a little paint and some TLC to turn the fading Victorian mansion into a real-estate cash cow.

But, oh, is Dempsey in for a surprise when she arrives in Guthrie. “Bird Droppings” would more aptly describe the moldering Pepto Bismol–pink dump with duct-taped windows and a driveway full of junk. There’s also a murderously grumpy old lady, one of Dempsey’s distant relations, who has claimed squatter’s rights and isn’t moving out. Ever.

Furthermore, everyone in Guthrie seems to know Dempsey’s business, from a smooth-talking real-estate agent to a cute lawyer who owns the local newspaper. It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the pesky FBI agents who show up on Dempsey’s doorstep, hoping to pry information about her ex-boss from her.

All Dempsey can do is roll up her sleeves and get to work. And before long, what started as a job of necessity somehow becomes a labor of love and, ultimately, a journey that takes her to a place she never expected—back home again.

CHAPTER 6

My father slid a yellowed black-and-white photograph across the desk in my direction. I picked it up and studied it. The picture was of a huge old house, antebellum, I guessed, with tall white columns marching across a wide front porch. It was set back behind a hedge of tall flowering shrubs, and a woman dressed in a hoopskirt and a 1950s-looking hairdo was posed prettily on the porch, waving, as if to a tour bus.

“What’s this?”

Pilar took the photo out of my hands and frowned. “Yeah. Wha’s this?”

“Birdsong,” Mitch said smugly. “My maternal grandmother’s family home place.”

“Your grandma lived on a plantation?” Pilar asked. “You never said anything about a plantation to me.”

“This is the house south of Atlanta?” I asked.

“Guthrie, Georgia,” he said. “Sixty-two miles south of Atlanta, if you want to be precise.” He smiled nostalgically. “I wasn’t born there, but my mother and father did take me there from the hospital. I guess I spent every Sunday of my life there until Dad and I moved when I was six.”

“When your parents split up?” I asked. I knew Mitch’s parents had divorced when he was young, and that he and his father had moved from Georgia to Nashville before he started first grade, but he’d never talked much about those early years of his life.

“That’s right,” Mitch said. “I guess I went back half a dozen times after we moved, to visit my mother and grandparents, but I don’t think I’ve seen the place since I was twelve. To tell you the truth, I’d forgotten it even existed until I got this letter from the lawyers.” He tapped the file folder.

“My great-uncle Norbert was the last of the Dempseys,” he said. “An old bachelor farmer. Never married, never had kids. He died several months ago at the ripe old age of ninety-seven. And it seems he’s left Birdsong to me.”

Pilar turned to me. “So, you’re named after them? I kinda wondered how you got such an unusual name.”

“It was Lynda’s idea,” Mitch said dryly. “She bought into all that romantic Southern crap about old family names. While she was pregnant, she got hold of an old family Bible and went through it looking for names for the baby. I told her I thought Dempsey was a terrible choice for a little baby girl, but she was dead set on that name.”

Pilar turned to me and rolled her eyes again. “No offense, but your mama sounds like a nut.”

For some reason, I felt the need to defend Lynda, and her choice of baby names.

“I hated my name when I was in grade school. I always wanted to be named Katelyn or Tara or Brittany. But when I got to boarding school, it was kinda cool to be the only Dempsey.”

I turned to Mitch. “I always wished you’d had some family photos of your mother’s side of the family. So I could see the people I’d been named for.”

“My father wanted nothing to do with the Dempseys after the divorce,” Mitch said. “He never talked about them, so it wasn’t what you would call an amicable split.”

“But now they’ve left you a plantation house,” Pilar said excitedly. “How many acres? How many bedrooms?” She grabbed the photo again and stared down at it. “A place like this must be worth a lot of money.”

Mitch shook his head. “Not according to the lawyer.” He picked up a pair of horn-rimmed reading glasses and took a letter from the folder.

“Carter Berryhill, he’s the attorney representing my great-uncle’s estate, says Birdsong conveys with point eight acres of land. At one time, I think, the property consisted of a couple hundred acres, but I imagine the Dempseys sold off that land over the years, and the town kind of grew in around it.”

“No plantation?” Pilar’s face fell.

“Sorry,” Mitch said. “By the time my grandparents lived there, there were maybe five or six acres. When I was a boy, it seemed like a huge place, with a barn where they’d once kept horses, and a small pasture where my granddaddy did keep a cow, along with a chicken coop and a big flower and vegetable garden, but of course, to a kid, everything seems huge and magnificent.”

He ran his finger down the typed lines. “Berryhill says the property was recently appraised for ninety-eight thousand.”

“That’s all?” Pilar got up and went around behind the desk to read over Mitch’s shoulder, just to make sure he hadn’t gotten the number wrong.

“That’s next to nothing,” she complained.

“It does seem low to me,” Mitch said. “Birdsong was a showplace. When I was a kid, it was the biggest, fanciest house in town. Berryhill does say old Norbert was in poor health the last few years, and that the house is in pretty bad disrepair, so maybe that explains it.”

I’d picked up the picture and was examining it closer. The Southern belle on the porch had a familiar look about her. I held it up for my father to see.

“Who’s this?”

He put the reading glasses on again and squinted down at the photo. “It’s such a grainy old print, it’s hard to tell. Could be my mother, I guess. Or maybe just some pretty girl who lived in town. Guthrie was the kind of place that always had aspirations to be like something out of Gone With the Wind. There was some kind of festival they had every spring, and all the women in town would get themselves up in hoopskirts and costumes like this. I think it was something the mill people and the business owners came up with to try to bring tourists in off of the interstate.”

Pilar looked at my father with astonishment. “You don’t even know if this is your own mama?”

“She died when I was nine,” Mitch said quietly. “Anyway,” he added, pushing the file across the desk to me, “this is what I’ve got in mind for you.”

“What? Dress up in a hoopskirt and wave to tourists?”

“Birdsong,” he said briskly. “My first thought was to tell this Berryhill fella to go ahead and put it on the market, sell it and be done. That’s what I intended, until you called and said you’d been fired.”

I winced.

“Look,” Mitch said. “You’re out of work. Out of money, basically. No place to live—”

“The girls said I could stay—”

“Until your savings run out. After that you’re freeloading.”

“Not if you loan me the money—”

“Never loan money to family,” Mitch said quickly. “That’s my policy. Anyway, how do you plan to pay me back? There’s no guarantee you’ll get a job with this mess hanging over your head.”

“You’re saying you want me to move to Guthrie, Georgia? A place I’ve never been? Move into a house I’ve never seen?”

He tapped the photo with his glasses. “You’re seeing it right now.”

“I’ll bet it’s a dump,” I said flatly.

“Now, maybe. But not when we’re done with it.”

“We?” I said.

“I thought we could form a little partnership.”

“What kind of partnership?” I asked warily.

“I think we can flip the place,” Mitch said. “You and me. I don’t care what some country-bumpkin lawyer thinks, I know the old home place has to be worth more than ninety-eight thousand. A lot more. When I was a kid, Atlanta seemed a world away. But now, with all the urban sprawl, Guthrie’s got to be almost a suburb of Atlanta. I’ve done some research, and real estate in Jackson County has been skyrocketing in the past few years. Birdsong, fixed up, would be the perfect ‘estate home’ for some Yankee corporate executive. Or a country retreat. Hell, the house alone has sixty-eight hundred square feet. A historic property like that, fully restored, ought to be worth around half a million.”

Pilar nodded vigorously. “At least. You can’t even get a chicken coop in Miami for that much money.”

“I’m not asking you to stay down there indefinitely,” Mitch said.

“Yeah,” Pilar put in. “You can’t expect your dad and me to give you a free place to stay forever. We got bills too, you know.”

“Are you talking about flipping? Like all those reality television shows?”

“People do it all the time. Make a lot of money at it,” Mitch said.

“People who know what they’re doing. And I don’t,” I started.

“What are you talking about? I remember when you were just a little girl. We got you a Barbie dream house for your birthday. You threw out the plastic furniture that came with it and spent weeks painting and redecorating it with scraps of wallpaper and fabric from a sample book your mother had lying around the house.”

He turned to Pilar. “This was during Lynda’s ‘I want to be an interior designer’ phase. Which came after the fashion-model phase, but before the sculptress phase. If I had a nickel for all the art lessons and books and crap that woman bought—”

“Stop making Lynda out to be such a flake,” I said angrily, tired of his criticisms. “She’s actually a very talented artist. She’s been doing the jewelry for years now, and several of the hottest boutiques in Hollywood sell her stuff.”

“Hollywood!” Mitch said. “Where else could you sell a necklace made out of pieces of broken taillights and beer can pop-tops?”

“For a couple thousand dollars,” I added. “That’s what one of her pieces sells for, you know.”

“If you say so,” Mitch said, his expression telling me he found it unlikely. “Anyway, the point I’m making is, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to fix this place up and make a nice profit from it.”

“Maybe.” Now I was the one who wasn’t buying what he was selling.

“Tell you what,” Mitch said, turning his attention back to the golf tournament. “Hang on. I gotta check to see how Tiger’s doing now. That kid from Australia’s been breathing down his neck for the past three holes.”

“Dad?” I said.

“Oh yeah. You go on down to Georgia. Get yourself settled in the house, then get busy fixing it up. I’ll set you up with a credit card to buy supplies and food and whatnot. Shouldn’t take you more than a month or two to whip the place into shape, right? Then we’ll flip the place and split the profits. How’s that sound?”

“What?” Pilar screeched. “That sounds like some kind of fabulous sweetheart deal to me. How ’bout Dempsey stays here with the boys, and I’ll go up there and get the place ready to sell. It won’t take me any month, I’ll tell you that right now. ”

“Damn!” Mitch cried, slapping the desktop. “He shanked it. Sonofabitch has been six under par all day, and he shanks it on the seventeenth hole.” He flicked the television off and stood up. He put his arm around Pilar.

“Now, baby, you know you don’t want to be messin’ around with some old house in some dinky little town in Georgia. What would the boys do without you? Hell, what would I do without you?”

“You’d get along,” Pilar said darkly.

“Dempsey?” Mitch said, looking over at me. I was staring down at the picture of Birdsong, at the mystery woman in the hoopskirt, waving to a carload of passing tourists.

“What do you say? Is it a deal?”

I sighed. “Deal.”

Read an extended excerpt from HarperCollins here.

1. Dempsey is one tough cookie! Strong and independent, she weathers a major life upheaval without much hysteria and lets on to relatively few people what she is going through. What attitudes does she adopt and behaviors does she engage in to help her get through? How would your coping mechanisms compare to Dempsey’s were you to find yourself in a similar situation?

2. Consider the level of support that Dempsey gets from her parents and friends. How do you think your family and friends would react if you were in a professional and legal predicament like Dempsey’s? When support was offered, how did Dempsey respond?

3. When Dempsey’s father sets her up at Birdsong, do you think his motives are entirely selfless? In what ways—financially, emotionally, otherwise—does it benefit him to have Dempsey go to Guthrie? Discuss his motivations. How does the dynamic of their father/daughter relationship compare with your own or with those of your loved ones? What is a “daddy’s girl?” How can a daddy’s girl grow up to be her own woman?

4. Bobby Livesey plays a huge role in the transformation of Birdsong. In what ways is Bobby also pivotal in Dempsey’s personal transformation?

5. What is your take on Ella Kate’s relationship with Dempsey’s grandmother? How might their relationship be received differently today?

6. What do you think Dempsey saw in Jimmy Maynard initially that allowed her to be open to his flirtations? Why are smart women attracted to bad boys? What is the difference between a bad boy and a truly evil man?

7. Agent Harrell tells Dempsey her mother is a “bona-fide wack job.” Do you get the impression that deep down Dempsey agrees with this assessment? In what way is Lynda’s presence in Guthrie a help to Dempsey? A hindrance?

8. Several characters in the book appear one way at first, but our perception of them changes over the course of the novel. What events in particular caused you to sympathize with Ella Kate? How does Jimmy Maynard redeem himself in your eyes over the course of the novel? How do Dempsey’s relationship with and opinions of Lynda evolve over the course of her visit? How did yours?

9. Agents Allgood and Harrell at first appear to be out to get Dempsey, but in the end they are rooting her on in her revenge plot. What is the turning point in this relationship? When does Dempsey transform from villain to victim in their eyes? Do you get the impression Dempsey and Allgood could be friends under different circumstances? How are they alike?

10. When we meet Tee Berryhill, he seems like a knight in shining armor and the perfect mate for Dempsey. Why do you think she remains resistant to his advances for so long? What turns her around on him? Have you ever been pursued so relentlessly? If so, how did you respond at first? If not, put yourself in Dempsey’s shoes and discuss how you would react.

11. Do you think Alex Hodder acted maliciously and set out deliberately to frame Dempsey from the start? At any point in the novel were you able to sympathize with Alex on some level in his professional or personal life choices? What figures in present-day political life come to mind when you think of Alex Hodder?

12. What factors contributed to Dempsey’s naiveté in her dealings with Alex Hodder? What warning flags should Dempsey have seen and what caused her to miss them? What do you think Dempsey learns from her ordeal?

13. Have you ever been screwed over by an employer or superior? If so, did it come as a shock and how did you react? Now that you’ve seen how Dempsey took care of her tormentor, how would you get the revenge of your dreams?

14. Discuss the renovation of Birdsong. In what ways is a project of this magnitude appealing to you? What most impressed you about Dempsey’s work on the house? What decorating choices did you admire or disagree with? How is the transformation of Birdsong a metaphor for the changes that occur in Dempsey’s life? How does the experience of fixing up Birdsong prepare Dempsey for what lies ahead?

15. How do you imagine Dempsey’s future life in Guthrie to be? Will she be content? What aspects of living there will pose the biggest challenge for her?

“Andrews serves up a tempting and satisfying dish of southern-fried romance, featuring a courageous heroine who is wooed by a worthy hero.”

-Booklist