Book Review - Belle ringer

Scandalous author among gathering at Jewish Book Fest

When Loraine Despres was growing up in a tiny town in rural Louisiana, her grandmother offered her relentless advice on how to be a Southern lady, some of which she kept, and some she didn’t.

“One of her favorite sayings was, ‘A smart girl never lets a boy know how smart she is.’ And that one I tossed out,” Despres says. “I found it worked, but I was only attracting stupid men. So I figured if they wanted stupid girls, there were plenty of them. They can find them by themselves.”

But not all of Despres’ childhood advice was forgotten; in fact, a good deal of it shows up in her debut novel, The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc. Published this month by William Morrow, the book tells the story of a sassy Southern woman who sets out on a journey of self-discovery in the summer of 1956. With the words of the fictional Southern Belle’s Handbook reverberating through her mind, Sissy rekindles an old flame with her high-school sweetheart, much to the chagrin of her husband.

“I just loved writing the Southern Belle’s Handbook because it really did come out of all this wisdom I’ve been taught and all the stuff I’ve learned about men and women.”

Despres is one of almost two dozen authors appearing at the 10th annual Jewish Book Festival, taking place Nov. 10-18 at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta in Dunwoody. She’s speaking Tuesday as part of a panel of new authors.

Though Despres may be new as a novelist, her writing career goes back more than two decades. A prolific screenwriter in Hollywood since the late ’70s, Despres penned the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode of Dallas, along with work on shows ranging from “The Equalizer” and “The Waltons” to “The Highlander.”

Despres, who like a true Southern lady, will not divulge her age, now lives in Beverly Hills with her husband, TV writer/producer Carleton Eastlake. After reaching the point of burnout with her screenwriting career, Despres turned her attention first to teaching, then to short story writing, and most recently to the novel, which germinated from a family legend from her childhood. According to lore, a man from her hometown of Amite, La., murdered his wife and her lover with a pistol purchased at Despres’ grandfather’s store. “And my grandfather,” Despres says, “he was horrified and said, ‘That’s it. No more handguns on credit.’”

In fact, Gentry, La., the fictional setting of The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc, bears more than a passing resemblance to Amite. Despres based the layout of Gentry on the small town, but says the characters are all unique creations. She also drew heavily on her experience of growing up in one of the only Jewish families in the small town.

“I grew very much as an outsider,” she says. “My family came from this very strong reform Judaism strain that came to Louisiana in the mid-1800s. So it was different from someone who grew up in a more traditional family, particularly a family from Eastern Europe, where you have these wonderful traditions to fall back on when the prejudices happen.”

Though the book’s main character, Sissy LeBlanc, definitely reflects the author’s Jewish identity, the book is more concerned with the ways in which Southern women break out from their expected roles, an idea that seems to directly contradict the Southern Belle stereotype. Despres sees the contradiction a little differently.

“I think most women want to be strong, they want to be independent, but they also want someone in their life that they can love.”

By those standards, does Despres consider herself a Southern Belle?

“Well,” she laughs, “a Southern belle with an attitude.”

The Jewish Book Festival is Nov. 10-18 at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, 5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody. $15-$20 per event. Call 770-908-3485 or visit of the Jewish Book Festival
Sat., Nov. 10

Michael Chabon, 2001 Pulitzer Prize winner for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, 8 p.m.

Sun., Nov. 11

Doug Lansky, Last Trout in Venice, 11 a.m.

Sam Roberts, The Brother, 2 p.m.

James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword, 7 p.m.

Mon., Nov. 12

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, The Way into the Jewish Mystical Tradition, 7:30 p.m.

Tues., Nov. 13

New author panel featuring Thisbe Nissen, Loraine Despres and James Siegel, 11:30 a.m.

Mystery panel featuring Lawrence Block, Rochelle Krich and Alan Furst, 7:30 p.m.

Wed., Nov. 14

Judith Miller, Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War, 7:30 p.m.

Thurs., Nov. 15

WWII panel: Howard Blum, The Bridgade, and Leo Litwak, The Medic, 7:30 p.m.

Fri., Nov. 16

Gina Nahai, Sunday’s Silence, 11:30 a.m.

Sat., Nov. 17

Dr. Ruth Westheimer, All in a Lifetime, 8 p.m.

Sun., Nov. 18

Michael Alexander, Jazz Age Jews, 2 p.m.

Anita Diamant, Good Harbor, 7 p.m.