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In a suburban Atlanta neighborhood where divorce is as rampant as kudzu, Mary Bliss McGowan doesn’t notice that her own marriage is in trouble until the summer night she finds a note from her husband, telling her he’s gone — and taken the family fortune with him.
Stunned and humiliated, a desperate Mary Bliss, left behind with her seventeen-year-old daughter, Erin, and a mountain of debt, decides to salvage what’s left of her life by telling one little bitty lie.
At first, Mary Bliss simply tells friends and family that Parker is out of town on a consulting job. Then the lies start to snowball, until Parker turns up dead. Or does he?
Mary Bliss’s formerly staid existence careens into overdrive as she copes with an oversexed teenager, a mother-in-law with Ethel Merman delusions, and the sudden but delicious shock of finding herself pursued by two men: the next-door neighbor who’s looking for a suitable second wife, and a dangerously attractive ex-cop who’s looking for the truth about Parker McGowan.
Little Bitty Lies is a comic Southern novel about all the important things in life: marriage and divorce, mothers and daughters, friendship and betrayal, small-town secrets, and one woman’s lifelong quest for home — and the perfect recipe for chicken salad.
Mary Bliss McGowan and Katharine Weidman had reached a point in the evening from whence there was no return. They had half a bottle of Tanqueray. They had limes. Plenty of ice. Plenty of time. It was only the Tuesday after Memorial Day, so the summer still stretched ahead of them, as green and tempting as a funeral home lawn. The hell of it was, they were out of tonic water.
“Listen, Kate,” Mary Bliss said. “Why don’t we just switch to beer?” She gestured toward her cooler. It had wheels and a long handle, and she hauled it down to the Fair Oaks Country Club pool most nights like the little red wagon she’d dragged all over town as a little girl. “I’ve got four Molson Lights right there. Anyway, all that quinine in the tonic water is making my ankles swell.”
She thrust one suntanned leg in the air, pointing her pink-painted toes and frowning. They looked like piggy toes, all fleshy and moist.
“Or maybe we should call it a night.” Mary Bliss glanced around. The crowd had been lively for a Tuesday night, but people had gradually drifted off — home, or to dinner, or inside, to their air conditioning and mindless summer sitcom reruns.
Bugs swarmed around the lights in the deck area. She felt their wings brushing the skin of her bare arms, but they never lit on Mary Bliss, and they never bit either. Somebody had managed to hook up the pool’s PA system to the oldies radio station. The Tams and the Four Tops, the same music she’d listened to her whole life — even though they were not her oldies but of a generation before hers — played on.
She and Katharine were the only adults around. Three or four teenaged boys splashed around in the pool, tossing an inflated beach ball back and forth. The lifeguard, the oldest Finley boy — Shane? Blaine? — sat on the elevated stand by the pool and glowered in their direction. Clearly, he wanted to lock up and go to the mall.
“No,” Katharine said, struggling out of her lounge chair. “No beer. Hell, it’s early yet. And you know I’m not a beer drinker.” She tugged at Mary Bliss’s hand. “Come on, then. The Winn-Dixie’s still open. We’ll get some more tonic water. We’ll ride with the top down.” Mary Bliss sniggered and instantly hated the sound of it. “Well-bred young ladies never drive with their tops down.”
Katharine rolled her eyes.
The Weidmans’ red Jeep stood alone in the club lot, shining like a plump, ripe apple in the pool of yellow streetlamp light. Mary Bliss stood by the driver’s door with her hand out. “Let me drive, Kate.”
“What? You think I’m drunk?”
“We killed half a bottle of gin, and I’ve only had one drink,” Mary Bliss said gently. Katharine shrugged and got in the passenger seat.
Mary Bliss gunned the engine and backed out of the club parking lot. The cool night air felt wonderful on her sweat-soaked neck and shoulders.
“I can’t believe Charlie gave up the Jeep,” Mary Bliss said. “I thought it was his baby. Is it paid for?”
“What do I care?” Katharine said, throwing her head back, running her fingers through the long blonde tangle of her hair. “My lawyer says we’ve got Charlie by the nuts. Now it’s time to squeeze. Besides, we bought it with the understanding that it would be Chip’s to take to Clemson in the fall. I’m just using it as my fun car this summer. We’re having fun, right?” “I thought freshmen weren’t allowed to have cars on campus,” Mary Bliss said.
“Charlie doesn’t know that,” Katharine said.
Mary Bliss frowned.
“Shut up and drive,” Katharine instructed.
The Winn-Dixie was nearly deserted. A lone cashier stood at the register at the front of the store, listlessly counting change into her open cash drawer. Katharine dumped four bottles of Schweppes Tonic Water down on the conveyor belt, along with a loaf of Sunbeam bread, a carton of cigarettes, and a plastic tub of Dixie Darlin’ chicken salad.
“Y’all got a Value Club card?” the cashier asked, fingers poised on the keys of her register.
“I’ve got better than that,” Katharine said peevishly, taking a twenty-dollar bill from the pocket of her shorts. “I’ve got cash money. Now, can we get the lead out here?”
The fluorescent lights in the store gave Katharine’s deeply tanned face a sick greenish glow. Her roots needed touching up. And, Mary Bliss observed, it really was about time Katharine gave up wearing a bikini. Not that she was fat. Katharine Weidman was a rail. She ran four miles every morning, no matter what. But she was in her forties, after all, and the skin around her neck and chest and shoulders was starting to turn to corduroy. Her breasts weren’t big, but they were beginning to sag. Mary Bliss tugged at the neckline of her own neat black tank suit. She couldn’t stand it the way some women over thirty-five paraded around half naked in public — as if the world wanted to see their goods. She kept her goods tucked neatly away, thank you very much.
Mary Bliss made a face as she saw Katharine sweeping her groceries into a plastic sack. “Since when do you buy chicken salad at the Winn-Dixie?” she asked, flicking the tub with her index finger.
“It’s not that bad,” Katharine said. “Chip loves it, but then, teenaged boys will eat anything. Anyway, it’s too damn hot to cook.”
“Your mother made the best chicken salad I’ve ever tasted,” Mary Bliss said. “I still dream about it sometimes. It was just like they used to have at the Magnolia Room downtown.” Katharine managed a half-smile. “Better, most said. Mama always said the sign of a lady’s breeding was in her chicken salad. White meat, finely ground or hand shredded, and some good Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, and I don’t know what all. She used to talk about some woman, from up north, who married into one of the Coca-Cola families. ‘She uses dark meat in her chicken salad,’ Mama told me one time. ‘Trailer trash.'”
“She’d roll over in her grave if she saw you feeding her grandson that store-bought mess,” Mary Bliss was saying. They were right beside the Jeep now, and Mary Bliss had the keys in her hand, when Katharine shoved her roughly to the pavement.
“What on earth?” Mary Bliss demanded.
“Get down,” Katharine whispered. “She’ll see us.”
“Who?” Mary Bliss asked. She pushed Katharine’s hand off her shoulder. “Let me up. You’ve got me squatting on chewing gum.”
“It’s Nancye Bowden,” Katharine said, peeping up over the side of the Jeep, then ducking back down again. “She’s sitting in that silver Lexus, over there by the yellow Toyota. My God!” “What? What is it?” Mary Bliss popped her head up to get a look. The Lexus was where Katharine had pointed. But there was only one occupant. A man. A dark-haired man. His head was thrown back, his eyes squeezed shut, his mouth a wide O, as if he were laughing at something.
“You’re crazy, Katharine Weidman. I don’t see Nancye Bowden at all.” She started to stand. “I’m getting a crick in my calves. Let’s go home.”
Katharine duck-walked around to the passenger side of the Jeep and snaked herself into the passenger seat. She slumped down in the seat so that her head was barely visible above the dashboard. “I’m telling you she’s in there. You can just see the top of her head. Right there, Mary Bliss. With that guy. Look at his face, Mary Bliss. Don’t you get it?” Mary Bliss didn’t have her glasses. She squinted, tried to get the man’s face in better focus. Maybe he wasn’t laughing.
Mary Bliss covered her eyes with both hands. She felt her face glowing hot-red in the dark. She fanned herself vigorously.
“You’re such a virgin.” Katharine cackled. “What? You didn’t know?”
“That Nancye Bowden was hanging out in the Winn-Dixie parking lot giving oral sex to men in expensive cars? No, I don’t think she mentioned it the last time I saw her at garden club. Does Randy know?”
Mary Bliss turned the key in the Jeep’s ignition and scooted it out of the parking lot, giving the silver Lexus a wide berth. She would die if Nancye Bowden saw her. “It’s called a blow job. Yes, I’m pretty sure Randy knows what Nancye’s been up to. But you can’t bring yourself to say it, can you?” Katharine said, watching Mary Bliss’s face intently.
“You have a very trashy mouth, Katharine Weidman. How would I know what perversion Nancye has been up to lately?”
“I guess y’all were down at Seaside when it happened. I just assumed you knew. Nancye and Randy are through. She moved into an apartment in Buckhead. He’s staying in the house with the kids, at least until school starts back in the fall, and his mother is watching the kids while Randy’s at work. Lexus Boy is some professor over at Emory. Or that’s what Nancye told the girls at that baby shower they had for Ansley Murphey.”
“I had to miss Ansley’s shower because we took Erin down to Macon for a soccer tournament,” Mary Bliss said. “I can’t believe I didn’t hear anything, with them living right across the street. The Bowdens? Are you sure? My heavens, that’s the third couple on the block. Just since the weather got warm.”
“Four, counting us,” Katharine said. “You know what they’re calling our end of the street, don’t you?”
Mary Bliss McGowan refers to Fair Oaks, the affluent Atlanta neighborhood where she lives, as “Split City” because of the high number of marriages on the rocks. A school teacher who prides herself on being the perfect wife and mother — and on her home-grown tomatoes — Mary Bliss thinks her own marriage is just fine. That is, until the night in early June when she returns home and finds a note from her husband telling her he’s gone. Not only has Parker McGowan walked out on Mary Bliss and their daughter, Erin, he has absconded with all their money, mortgaged the house, and even made off with Mary Bliss’s engagement ring.
As the summer unfolds, Mary Bliss’s carefully structured life comes apart at the seams. Her mother-in-law, ensconced at the local nursing home, is a cantankerous old woman who clearly knows more than she’s telling about her son’s disappearance. Mary Bliss’s teenage daughter, Erin, has become secretive, and in the rare instances that she’s home they end up fighting. Her best friend, Katharine, is confronting marital woes of her own. And to top it all off, the bills are piling up around her.
Armed with only her wits and a large dose of determination, Mary Bliss needs to make some cash in a hurry. She polishes her Frances I sterling silver flatware set and hocks it at a pawn shop, and she even takes a job as a product demonstration hostess hawking food samples at Bargain Bonanza Club. But none of this is enough. In danger of losing her house, Mary Bliss does what any smart, self-respecting woman would do in her situation. With Katharine’s help, she hatches a plan to stage Parker’s death and put in a claim for the insurance money. After a quick trip to Mexico and a boating accident, Mary Bliss has a death certificate in hand and is playing the grieving widow at her husband’s funeral…and that’s just the beginning.
By summer’s end, Mary Bliss has learned some important lessons — serving up revenge is not nearly as appetizing as dishing out her chicken salad; a best friend’s help is essential when faking your husband’s demise; and things are not always what they seem, especially when it comes to attractive men who make your heart beat faster.
Mary Bliss and Katherine have been friends for more than a decade, and the saying “opposites attract” seems to describe their friendship. Are Katharine and Mary Bliss really as different as they seem? What makes their friendship so strong? What do they have in common?
Mary Bliss encourages Katherine to reconcile with Charlie, who cheated on Katharine and was living with another woman. In one instance Mary Bliss says to her, “Honestly, sweetie, he’s too good a man to just throw away like this.” Why does she think Katharine should take Charlie back when she makes it very clear that she will not give Parker a second chance?
Mary Bliss thinks her life is perfect, or at least perfectly well ordered, until Parker leaves. Do you think she was happy in her marriage? Did she miss any signs that her marriage was not as perfect as she thought? When Mary Bliss finally has the chance to confront Parker, he puts the blame on her for his leaving. What do you think about this?
Parker’s leaving is the catalyst Mary Bliss needs to make changes in her life — and to change herself. “Maybe there was a smidgen of rebel beaten down inside her. Maybe Parker’s leaving had unlocked this side of her.” Describe Mary Bliss as she appears at the beginning of the novel. How has she changed by the end of the story?
Mary Bliss visits Eula regularly at the nursing home, cooks her favorite foods, and brings her flowers. Even after Parker leaves, Mary Bliss continues to visit Eula. Why is Eula so hostile to Mary Bliss? Why does Mary Bliss feel such a sense of responsibility for Eula? Did Eula’s decision about her estate surprise you?
There are references throughout the story to Mary Bliss’s childhood. “Her own daddy, James Clewitt, had abandoned his family. Had told her mama he was going to Florida to look for work.. Drove away in a 1968 green Ford Falcon. And that was that. Never to return.” How have the circumstances of Mary Bliss’s childhood affected her as an adult? She sees Parker’s behavior as worse than her father’s because “Parker had not only abandoned them, he’d stolen their future.” Do you agree with Mary Bliss on this?
Discuss the relationships Mary Bliss has with the women in her life — Katharine, Erin, Eula — and how each one is important to her.
Katharine plays an integral role in the plan to fake Parker’s death. Why does she do this? Is it merely because she’s Mary Bliss’s best friend, or are there other reasons?
Mary Bliss and Matt Hayslip meet under unusual circumstances, and she does not particularly like him at their first meeting. What changes her mind about him? Mary Bliss and Matt’s relationship is clouded by lies and deception. In one instance he says to her, “What about you? Are you capable of telling the truth?.” As she says about their relationship, “they had done everything backward.” Why, ultimately, does their relationship work?
The title of the book, Little Bitty Lies, is an understatement. What do you think of the lies that abound in the book? Is there any character who does not resort to lies and deception? During a conversation with Charlie, Mary Bliss feels bad for deceiving him but has “already made an uneasy peace with her conscience, telling herself the ends justified the means.” In Mary Bliss’s case, do you think the ends justified the means?