Rich in the detailed nuances of the human heart, and swimming in the decadent atmosphere of New Orleans, Spelling Mississippi is a seductive, liberating novel about the ties that bind -- and those that simply restrain.
After Cleo arrives in New Orleans on holiday, she’s not quite sure what she means to find there, or how long she will stay. At first, all that is important is that she’s finally “away”: that she can let go of her life in Toronto and allow herself to be caught up in the swirls of the city itself. This is the New Orleans of magnolia breezes and bourbon afternoons, and Cleo gives herself over to days spent experiencing the French Quarter in the languorous fashion it seems to require. But then one night, while sitting alone on a wharf watching the Mississippi roll by, something happens that wakes her up from her reverie and gives her an urgent sense of the direction in which she must go.
When a woman in an evening gown and a rhinestone tiara leaps over Cleo’s head and into the Mississippi River and disappears into a mammoth swell, Cleo is at a loss for what to do, and can only run away. Having just witnessed what she believes to be a suicide, she spends the night distraught and alone in her hotel, the Pommes Royales, replaying the scene in her mind and unsuccessfully barricading the doors against the flood of emotions headed her way. Over the next days, despite efforts to return to her explorations of the city, she cannot shake loose the intensity of this experience, as if some aspect of it has opened her eyes to truths unknown.
Madeline, it turns out, had not intended to commit suicide, and did not. Rather, she leapt into the river because she needed to, and survived her crossing -- and the night itself -- despite the evening clothes weighing her down. For her, water has always had an irresistible pull, and at that dark hour, when everything in her life and in her marriage appeared to be falling apart, it was just the remedy for her anger and her pain. When she emerges on the other shore, Madeline isn’t sure of how exactly this swim has changed her, but she knows it has, and triumphantly sits down for some turtle soup and a bourbon at a favourite café. She will spend the next days trying to take back control of her life. What she doesn’t realize, though, is that she has also changed the life of another.
A brief report on the evening news about a mysterious river-swimmer who has just been unwillingly plucked out of the Mississippi sends Cleo the lifeline that she needs. Certain that this second swimmer must be the same woman, Cleo becomes determined to find her, having become tangled in the flowing robes of her story on that fateful night. And as we follow them separately -- Cleo on her search through the streets of New Orleans for Madeline, and Madeline through her struggles to figure out what she even needs to find -- each woman’s story unfolds in waves of experience and memory in such a way that it seems fate has always meant for them to meet.
For instance, Madeline and Cleo both arrived in New Orleans haunted by, and trying to escape, their pasts. Cleo’s mother disappeared when she was young, as the family was moving to Canada from England, and Cleo has never been able to escape the pain of her absence. Madeline’s mother was always too present; not only could she not make up for Madeline’s father leaving, but she pushed her daughter away besides. Yet Cleo and Madeline also share in not being able to come to terms with what pushes them forward. They are like two rivers flowing to a single path, each gaining momentum as it nears the other. And when the confluence occurs at last, their shared desires and needs come together with startling force, crashing at the shores of their histories one experience and one memory at a time.
As it continues on to its enchanting conclusion, Spelling Mississippi redoubles in both intensity and magic, and Woodrow draws us into its flow with writing driven by equal parts passion and wry humour. This is a love story set in New Orleans, after all, and the rules do not necessarily apply. What is certain, though, is that this book marks the debut of a thrilling new novelist, whose work will stay with us just as surely as Cleo and Madeline and New Orleans will haunt each other for time to come.
Marnie Woodrow was born in Orillia, Ontario, in 1969. As an only child, she found that writing came naturally to her at a young age, as a way of using her imagination to entertain herself. “I’ve always written stories,” she has said. “As soon as I figured out how to write a sentence, I started doing picture books.” It’s not surprising, then, that she progressed to publishing her stories at an early age. Woodrow’s first book, a collection of short stories entitled Why We Close Our Eyes When We Kiss, was published in 1991 when she was 22 years old. Her next book of stories, In the Spice House, was published in 1996, and garnered even more praise.
But despite her early successes, Woodrow is no stranger to taking on interesting jobs in order to support her writing. In between her earlier collections and Spelling Mississippi, Woodrow worked at various times as a dishwasher, a theme-park moose, and a bookseller -- the last of which was perhaps the most difficult to manage during the writing process. “I was working full-time in a bookstore, watching tons of books go by. Everyone says, ‘Isn’t it great to work in a bookstore?’ and it is, except when you’re trying to write a book yourself.”
For Woodrow, there were two prime inspirations for the story that became Spelling Mississippi. First, there was the image of the child that would become Cleo in this novel, inspired by a 1966 photograph of flood workers in Florence. For Cleo, who carries with her a copy of the National Geographic magazine it appeared in, this event is doubly important: not only was it during the flood that she was conceived, but also the work in Florence is one of the few things she knows her mother had a passion for. Woodrow, who came across such a photo, wondered what a child of a flood worker would be like as an adult.
The second inspiration for this novel was New Orleans itself, a city in which Woodrow spent three and a half months after leaving university, and a favourite place to which she has returned since -- for both research and pleasure. There, Woodrow not only met fascinating people and discovered a lush setting, but came across the basis for the character of Madeline: “I was intrigued by the idea of someone swimming across the Mississippi, because it’s dirty and rough.” The first image that hit her was of a woman coming out of the water fully dressed. And then, thinking her story along, she wondered what two women could bring to each other’s lives if they were brought together in a single moment, and what could come of their gradual and fateful rejoining: “There’s no real ‘reason’ for two such people to meet, yet they do, and the profound simpatico they feel comes as a surprise to both of them. I wanted to explore their journey toward one another just as much as the meeting…. I was preoccupied with the notion that people can haunt each other indefinitely, for so many reasons.”
But once she thought about the story, and what it could become, Woodrow knew that the material she was working with was too much for short fiction, and it was then that she decided to write it as a novel. Five years and a hot bidding process later, Spelling Mississippi was published by Knopf Canada as a part of their New Face of Fiction program -- a program geared to publishing new Canadian writers with distinct voices. The process was far from easy, and one thing Woodrow would certainly change next time around was her dependence on her computer: she has often mentioned in interviews that one of her worst enemies was the “delete” key. She would start, and then “delete, delete, delete,” and then regret losing those precious words later on. Next time around, she says, she’ll try long hand.
Since its Canadian release, Spelling Mississippi has found a worldwide audience. It has been published in the United Kingdom and the rest of the Commonwealth, and will soon be published in Sweden. And for Woodrow, the sharing of stories is what’s most important, in both this novel and for being a writer, so this is wonderful news: “For me, it’s about what people bring to each other’s lives in terms of stories and experiences and how, when you bring these stories together, there’s an alchemy…” Her next projects, including a screen adaptation of Spelling Mississippi, a young-adult novel, and a second novel for adult readers, will prove just how wide her audience can become.
"An affecting tale of one woman's immersion into the gloriously decadent city of New Orleans." -- National Post
“The hype around Marnie Woodrow’s debut novel is justified…. Spelling Mississippi is a spellbinding tale. New Orleans is where it happens -- that sultry, blues-ridden city -- and Marnie Woodrow is a writer who knows how to conjure up a setting…She’s a terrific writer, and her wonderfully wry sense of humour enhances Cleo’s journey…. Spelling Mississippi is the book to read this season and Woodrow, with two story collections behind her as well as this fine novel, is the writer to watch.” -- Vancouver Sun
“Spelling Mississippi begins with a visually stunning drama that lingers ‘like the ghost scent of fine perfume’ over all the pages to come…. The narrative shifts smoothly between Cleo and Madeline, suspensefully unfurling their pasts, troubled childhoods, backstories ripe with longings and secrets, like the mini-cities of the dead, haunting the present…. Woodrow is a delicious tease, offering cool quenching sips of information, but spiked with intrigue. The story swirls compellingly on, at times funny, wise, erotic, always precisely detailed and vivid. A kind of romantic melancholy permeates the pages…. The charm and strength of the telling is the intimate reality created, the bang-on dialogue and characters [are] fully flesh and blood…. Spelling Mississippi, in the best way, is alive, both spirited and haunted.” -- Eliza Clark, The Globe and Mail
"Debut novel surfaces with extraordinary power…. Marnie Woodrow, who in this debut novel already displays a brilliant feel for atmosphere and setting ... invites you in to drink in all that atmosphere, and immerse yourself in her world. Spelling Mississippi is a novel that will absolutely surround you ... [It] reads like a langorous swim to a private island." -- Hamilton Spectator
“Southern light shines on stunning debut…. Woodrow has executed the shift to the long form with shocking grace and considerable skill….. Spelling Mississippi is full of intelligence, humour and passion.” -- Xtra!
“One of the hottest novels of the season…Not only is Marnie Woodrow’s Spelling Mississippi raising the temperature of book reviewers everywhere, it is set in that most humid of cities, New Orleans….Filled with humour, it is a delicious novel for a very hot July day…. Spelling Mississippi is witty, wise, smart and sexy.” -- Andrew Armitage, The Sun Times
“Spelling Mississippi…is a sweet, eccentric love story that I wished would go on forever….The story is original, sexy and presents an unforgettable portrait of New Orleans.” -- W.P. Kinsella, Books In Canada
“Strikingly written….an entertaining, appealing book….[Woodrow] relies on innovation and overdrive to spur her story, and the result is an arresting and original first novel.” -- London Free Press
“With the mighty Mississippi river providing a majestic background of intrigue, and the city of New Orleans the setting for romance and charm, Ontario short story writer Marnie Woodrow makes an impressive debut as a novelist with Spelling Mississippi. She delves deeply into the psyche of her exciting and mysterious characters. The author’s skill in spinning a good yarn is evident. Romance, drama, betrayal and sex -- it is all here, punctuated with fascinating historical detail…. " -- Winnipeg Free Press
"an affecting tale of one woman's immersion into the gloriously decadent city of New Orleans." -- Noah Richler, National Post
“Woodrow’s voice is original, her craft superb…. Spelling Mississippi has a lot of foreward thrust, a steady supply of reasons to turn the page.” -- The Gazette, Montreal
“Spelling Mississippi is drenched with an eerie and feminine sensuality from the very start. The scents, scenes and sounds of the book are all an elaborate foreplay for the greater things to come….There’s aggravation, mystery and a strange romance that will haunt you long after the last page is read.” -- Ottawa Citizen
"Woodrow's lush prose drives a satisfying and coherent narrative…. This is a love letter to New Orleans in all its steamy glory: the magnolias' reek, the non-stop nightlife, the potent Southern hospitality. Woodrow keeps the sexy story pounding along toward Cleo's and Madeline's eventual connection, which is so intense they suspect that something must be terribly wrong. Yet by the end, you can't help but conclude that, with Spelling Mississippi, Woodrow has done something terribly right." -- Susan G. Cole, NOW magazine
“Spelling Mississippi is charged with the eccentric energies of its characters and its New Orleans setting. A love story that is tender, but also witty, sexy and highly intoxicating.” -- Timothy Taylor, author of Stanley Park
"A smart, sexy, moving jazz riff of a novel." -- Emma Donoghue, author of Slammerkin
"In this bourbon-soaked barnburner of a tale, the Mississippi River becomes the catalyst for one woman's midnight swim and another's plunge into obsession. The setting is a New Orleans stocked with star-crossed lovers, barflies, thwarted dreams and mother-daughter showdowns. [Spelling Mississippi] plays with notions of fate and inevitability in the characters' lives, themes that fit nicely with New Orleans' reputation for romance and magic.... The novel is, at its root, about people overcoming their tangled, traumatic histories to authentically find one another." -- Quill & Quire