At thirty-five, Mary Frazier Armstrong, called "Frazier" by friends and enemies alike, is a sophisticated woman with a thriving art gallery, a healthy bank balance, and an enviable social position. In fact, she has everything to live for, but she's lying in a hospital bed with a morphine drip in her arm and a life expectancy measured in hours. "Don't die a stranger," her assistant says on her last hospital visit. "Tell the people you love who you are." And so, as her last act on earth, Frazier writes letters to her closest family and friends, telling them exactly what she thinks of them and, since she will be dead by the time they receive the letters, the truth about herself: she's gay.
The letters are sent. Then the manure hits the fan in Charlottesville, Virginia, because the funny thing is, Frazier Armstrong isn't going to die after all.
The risible title is arguably the best thing about Brown's latest comic novel, the tale of a woman who unwittingly comes out of the closet in midlife when she is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Under the impression that she is on her deathbed, wealthy North Carolina art dealer Mary Frazier Armstrong mails a series of brutally candid letters to her kith and kin, only to discover that she isn't dying after all. Brown delivers some nicely sketched southern characters: Mary Frazier's imperious mother, Libby, whose long-simmering anger has poisoned her daughter's life; her sensitive brother, Carter, an alcoholic redneck whose lifelong self-destructiveness is partly a response to Mary Frazier's success; her closeted lover, Ann, who is made uncomfortable by their claustrophobic secret life; and her dazzlingly outrageous gay friend Billy Cicero. But this gallery of character sketches cannot save the story from predictability and a deeply unconvincing resolution. Arch dialogue, lack of plot and an overall inattentiveness to nuance are the distinguishing features here. Fans of Brown's previous books ( Bingo ; Rest in Pieces ) may enjoy this story, but first-time readers are bound to be disappointed. (Apr.)
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December 31, 1993
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