The Big Beautiful

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The critically acclaimed author returns to the North Carolina landscape she knows so well with this gloriously written sequel to Moon Women.

On an eastbound North Carolina interstate highway, the mountains and her hometown far behind, Cassandra Moon realizes that she has not only broken the heart of the one man who's ever asked her to marry—on their wedding day, no less—but she's driven the limousine into the ground, gotten "skunk drunk" on the champagne, and has somehow managed to get herself stuck in the sunroof while still in her wedding gown. Caught in a whirlwind of taffeta and tulle, heartache and second guesses, Cassandra desperately needs some peace of mind. When she arrives in the coastal town of Salter Path—disheveled and in the company of a mysterious red-haired seafaring man—Cassandra knows for sure that her life has taken a turn she can't quite understand. But the people Cassandra encounters on this unexpected odyssey will share with her the hurts and hopes of a lifetime, and she may finally realize that getting lost in this oceanside town, in the memories and dreams of its people, is the only way she'll be found.


Chapter One

 IT WAS LOOKING at her feet that did it. She blamed that magazine article on dreams she'd read in the doctor's office the other week, the one where this woman said if she didn't like what she was dreaming, she just looked down at her feet, and when she looked back up, poof! New dream.

So every night for a week she went to sleep saying over and over, "Look at your feet, look at your feet," but once the dream started, all she could do was stand and watch. And every night it was the same. She watched herself marry a man whose face she couldn't see, and the preacher said, "Do you, Charlotte, take this man?" but she couldn't open her mouth to tell him her name was Cassandra. Then she lifted her veil and saw the groom was Mr. Collins from that movie Pride and Prejudice, which meant she wasn't Lizzie, or even Jane. She was Charlotte Lucas, the one that settled. The one that married a man she didn't love, just to have a husband. Cassandra had wanted to change that dream so bad, turn the bride back into herself and Mr. Collins into Mr. Darcy.

No, wait, not Mr. Darcy. Dennis. Her groom was Dennis, and this was no dream. This was her wedding and it was time to wake up. From the corner of her eye she could see A.J.'s legs in his white tux as he waited to escort her down the aisle. They looked like the legs of a soldier in dress uniform, like that picture of Marshall from when he was in the Marines, the one Mama had kept on the dresser, right next to the picture of Daddy in his army uniform, both so handsome. Cassandra had always dreamed of her daddy walking her down the aisle, but he hadn't lived long enough, or maybe she'd taken too long. A.J.'s left leg twitched back and forth like it was hearing music none of the rest of them could hear, fast music saying, "Let's get this show on the road."

Staring at the white satin pumps that matched her dress, she wondered why they even made shoes with pointy toes. People's feet were not pointy. As a matter of fact, they were more rectangular than anything, or at least hers were. Fred Flintstone feet.

All right, Cassandra, she thought. That's enough feet and dreams. She took a deep breath and forced her head up. The first thing she laid eyes on was Ruth Ann, making a face that didn't need any translation, an irritated look saying, "What are you doing?"

All Ruth Ann's young'uns were there too—Ashley with her belly pooched out, Keith holding Catherine, who looked so cute in her little white lace dress that would probably be filthy before the day was out, Angela and David and their two boys, and Alex. Then there were all her brothers and their families, and all of Dennis's family, every one staring like she just landed from Mars.

The last person she let herself look at was Dennis. Standing up there cute as a button in his white tux, hair stiff as a board from all that gel he used, that long skinny finger pushing his glasses up his nose every ten seconds. She'd begged him a million times to get some new glasses that didn't cover up so much of his face, but he wouldn't do it. At least two or three times a year he lost his glasses leaning over a grave—when he started sweating, they slid right off—and he said it would be crazy to spend a bunch of money replacing fashion frames all the time.

Dennis winked and smiled and, oh, he was the sweetest thing. She did want to marry him. Didn't she? Of course she did. She smiled back, thinking, okay, now, now I can do it. One of her feet even moved forward.

But then the organist caught her eye, or rather her hat did. None of the other women wore hats, ever, but Joyce Miller never went without one. Her mama had thin hair, and everybody figured Joyce must be losing hers too. The hat was ice blue with big navy flowers in front, colors that matched her dress. She looked like the hydrangea by Cassandra's front porch. Joyce sat with her fingers poised over the keys, raised her eyebrows at Cassandra, then nodded. Cassandra wanted to holler, "No! Wait!" but Joyce's fingers hit the keys and the music blared out and she froze again.

A.J. took hold of her elbow and whispered, "Ready?" She shook her head no, but then that prissy Aubrey started pushing from behind, saying, "Go! Go! Go!" in a real low voice. That little hussy, Cassandra thought. All she cared about was following her durn schedule and having everything turn out just so. At rehearsal the night before, Dennis had to take Cassandra outside and calm her down so she wouldn't pinch Aubrey's head off for telling her how to walk. "She's just doing her job, honey," Dennis said. "We want to get it right, don't we?"

Oh, yes, we must get it right. Why, if something was to go wrong, oh, horrors! Cassandra hadn't wanted a wedding planner in the first place, especially not that uppity Aubrey. She didn't see what was so complicated about walking down the aisle.

Aubrey pushed again and Cassandra fought off a smile, tickled at the thought of that munchkin back there trying to shove her up the aisle—Aubrey the tugboat and Cassandra the oil tanker. One advantage to being a full-figured gal was, if she didn't want to move, then they by God couldn't make her.

She heard whispers then, people probably wondering what in the world she was doing, holding up the wedding like that, her own wedding. What was she doing? Wasn't this what she'd wanted her whole life and been afraid would never happen? Cassandra, she said to herself, this is your wedding. Buck up now and get on with it. You're not a little girl anymore playing paper dolls. This is real.

Maybe that was the problem. She was still in shock. After all those years of waiting and hoping and nothing ever happening, just when she was getting used to being an old maid, along comes Dennis, who told her after they'd been dating awhile that he made up his mind about her the minute she walked through the door of the funeral home. What woman wouldn't want to hear that? But so much happened so fast—Mama dying, getting engaged, selling the house and the day care, planning a wedding. A lot of the time Cassandra had felt like one of those little toy divers at the bottom of a fish tank, frozen underwater, just watching while everything rushed past her.

"Give me a minute," she whispered to A.J., and he raised a finger to Joyce. She quit playing and the church got quiet, except for the rustling as people fanned themselves with the wedding programs. Sometime during the night the air-conditioning in the sanctuary had broken, and nobody could get it to work in time for the wedding. Cassandra had suggested having her brother bring in the giant fan from his garage, but Aubrey had pitched a fit and Ruth Ann said it would blow them all away and drown out the vows. If only she'd listened to Dennis and got this over with on Valentine's Day, back when it was still cold weather. But no, she wanted time to lose more weight. No amount of weight was worth this, though, melting inside a sauna of a dress.

Cassandra took a deep breath and lifted the skirt to let some air circulate under there. Sweat trickled down her back, probably making a big sweat stain on that white satin, a stain everybody would see and bust out laughing over, one that would never come out, just like the one on her high-school graduation gown. Only two people in the whole gym came out with giant sweat stains on their backs, her and Butch Randall, a linebacker on the football team. Not her most ladylike moment.

The dress was bad enough—that heavy satin did not breathe—but then add on the layers of underwear and petticoat and panty hose and they might as well have wrapped her in plastic and covered her with a fur coat. The hose were the worst, right up against her skin, and they were white to match the dress. White stockings only made her legs look fatter, what A.J. called baloney legs, the same size around from thigh to ankle. She hadn't even intended to wear any since the dress was floor length, but Ruth Ann said people would still be able to see the tops of her feet and it was plum tacky to go bare-legged at a wedding.

Why did getting married have to be so uncomfortable, anyhow? They ought to have worn matching denim outfits like that couple in the paper last week. Or black leather like that couple on the news, the ones that got married on the back of a Harley in Myrtle Beach.

A.J. pulled on her arm again, and she could feel all eyes on her, burning. Still she couldn't move, not with her feet swelling up like that, like little loaves of bread dough rising, just like Aunt May's. At family reunions when she was a little girl, she'd sit on the floor at Aunt May's feet, fascinated by how the fat on top plumped up between the sides of her shoes. She'd always wanted to poke her finger in that fat to see what would happen, thinking it would be soft and squooshy like the Pillsbury Doughboy, but she never had the nerve. She just sat there, looking at feet and hems and creases in pants legs, listening to the grown-ups talking and laughing over her head, loving Aunt May's cackling laugh, wondering if you had to have a big belly to laugh like that. It made Cassandra feel happy and safe, made her want to grow up to be just like Aunt May. And damned if she hadn't, fat feet and all. Except Aunt May wasn't an old maid who still lived less than five miles from where she was born.

Well, Cassandra thought, she wouldn't be an old maid if she married Dennis. And the word if hissed through her brain like a hot skillet dropped in a sinkful of dishwater. If she married Dennis.

There came a ringing in her ears then, and she wondered if she might be fixing to pass out, which was something nobody in her family ever did except from drinking, and even that was rare. Her people didn't get the vapors like Southern belles in romance books. They were sturdy and strong, especially the women. But, oh, how she wished she could be a fluttery belle right now, Scarlett or Melanie or whoever, just have everything go black and then wake up laying on a big bed in a nice cool dark room all by herself.

She really was feeling dizzy all of a sudden, so she closed her eyes and leaned back just a tad so if she did fall, she'd land on Aubrey. Think of something calm, she thought, something cool and soothing. And then she saw it, blue, deep sparkling blue, and it took her a minute to realize it was the ocean, the big beautiful blue ocean on a cloudless summer day, whitecaps icing the tops of the waves, sea oats bending in the breeze.

She'd wanted to go to the beach on their honeymoon, but Dennis said it was too far, so they were going to Asheville for the weekend instead, to stay at the Grove Park and visit Biltmore House. Cassandra had seen it a million times already, but Dennis never had because when he was a little boy his daddy was always working, and now he was always working. Since his daddy was cutting down on his hours, Dennis didn't have any backup and couldn't afford to take a whole week off. She'd told herself it didn't matter where they went as long as they were together, but she could see now that was a load of crap. She hadn't been to the beach in over a year, not since that last time with Ruth Ann and the girls, and she wanted to go.

A.J. poked her and whispered, "Honey, come on. It's time to shit or get off the pot."

How romantic. But he was right. It was time. She looked up at him and nodded, and he winked. What was the deal with men winking, anyhow? It made her feel like a little kid. He must've nodded at Joyce, because she started up the organ again. Cassandra wished now she'd got piano music. Organ music always made her think of funerals, or altar calls. Somebody save me, she thought.

She looked at Dennis and smiled her biggest smile. Poor follow, he looked right red in the face. She felt her feet move, slowly, but they weren't doing that step-pause, step-pause Aubrey drilled into her last night. Instead, they shuffled side by side until they'd done a complete 180 and she couldn't see Dennis or the organ or anybody else. And suddenly she could breathe again. A little breeze came through the open doors, blew through the veil onto her face. Ah, so cool. She could use just a little more of that before she got married, a little more of that breeze. Moving now toward the church doors, toward that wind, she could see more and more blue sky, then green grass, the white sidewalk, the black limo that mercifully did not have the name of the funeral home painted on it. Dennis, bless him, used those removable magnetic signs, said kids wouldn't want to go to a prom in a funeralmobile.

The organ was still going, and she fell automatically into a step-pause, step-pause perfect enough even for Aubrey. Her dress rustled against the door frame and then she was floating, down the steps onto the sidewalk, the heels of her shoes clicking on the concrete. She'd loved that sound when she was a little girl. It made her feel so grown up.

A low buzzing hum followed her like a swarm of bees, then she realized it was the sound of voices. They got louder and louder, so loud she lifted her dress to walk faster and was practically running by the time she grabbed the bumper to slingshot around the front of the car. Somehow she got herself and the dress stuffed into the driver's seat. She slammed the door and felt for the key in the ignition, then remembered Dennis kept it under the mat. Like that wasn't the first place a thief would look. Which made her a thief, she thought, as she leaned down and felt under the mat, then sat up with the key in her hand.

Don't look back, she told herself, don't look. But her head turned of its own accord, and there they were. The church had emptied out, and they stood bunched up on the steps and the sidewalk, staring like cows. They didn't look real, somehow, looked more like a picture of people in an album, photos of somebody else's wedding. Cassandra half-expected to find her own face looking back at her from that crowd, a guest at yet another wedding not her own.

Reader's Guide

1. Why do you think this novel is entitled The Big Beautiful? What do you think “the big beautiful” refers to?

2. Do you think one can be too old for romance? If you were Doris’s age, with her health, would you be open to a new courtship? Is it her self-consciousness about her illness or something else that holds her back?

3. Each month starts with a literary quote about love. How do the quotes connect to what happens in the section of the story that follows?

4. There are three generations in this novel. Are they different in how they perceive love? What are the similarities that tie the many different characters together?

5. Evelyn sums up the novel as being about late bloomers and second chances. How is this theme reflected in the characters, and their relationships with each other and their town? In the landscape of their town?

6. Cassandra and May both say they wouldn’t give anything to go back in time. Cassandra is happy she is past Annie Laurie’s age and May is happy she is past Cassandra’s age. Would you go back to a certain age if you could? If so, what age and why?

7. What role do you think the ocean plays in relation to the characters? Is it seen as friend or foe? Doris hates it. The rest of the O’Neal family would never want to be away from it. Do you think the ocean is a strong character in this novel?

8. Annie Laurie twice almost drowned in the ocean, first as a little girl and then on the boat with Dennis and Hector. What did she learn from those two experiences? What does the ocean represent to her?

9. Throughout the novel Cassandra references romance novels and movies. Do you think Cassandra is too wrapped up in the ideal? Does this help her to see what she wants? Are men as susceptible to the allure of romance as women?

10. Cassandra gets close with Annie Laurie. Do you think Cassandra was responsible in pursuing this friendship knowing she was leaving in a few months? Do you think Doris was right in lecturing Cassandra about her relationship?

11. Why do you think Cassandra is so drawn to Hector? Why does she keep dating Dennis? Did she rush too quickly from one man to another? Would she have been better off taking more time for herself?

12. All of the characters want love. And they all run from it. Cassandra avoids Hector. Annie Laurie avoids Jim. Evelyn avoids her family. Why do you think this is?

13. Would you rather have love or romance? Are the two separate as May says? Can romance have different definitions for different people, just as love does?

14. Why do you think Dennis changes his life? Does he do it for Cassandra or for himself? Do you think it is good to change for love? How do Dennis and Cassandra act as catalysts in each other’s lives?

15. Do you think Cassandra is Hector’s hero or Hector is Cassandra’s hero? If so, what are they saving each other from? Is it possible to be your own hero, or do you need relationships?

16. It is said that geographical cures don’t really work because no matter where you go, there you are. How does this theory play out in Cassandra’s story?

17. What does the story say about different definitions of motherhood? Of family?

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