Marnie Woodrow’s 2002 novel Spelling Mississippi begins with an extraordinary event: Cleo, a Canadian in her late twenties visiting New Orleans, witnesses a striking older woman jump headfirst into Mississippi river in the middle of the night, wearing full evening dress including a tiara and high heels. Cleo, assuming the dive is a suicide, is momentarily stunned and then runs panicked from the scene. This initial encounter between Cleo, a traveller in search of meaning and belonging, and Madeline, the diving diva who it turns out is not suicidal but seeking the exhilaration of danger, is the catalyst for a moving love story. Although at first terrified to face the consequences of what she saw, Cleo becomes obsessed with the mysterious midnight swimmer once she discovers that the woman is still alive. In fact, Cleo is able to track her down because Madeline attempts this strange and risky swim more than once, making the local news. Cleo ends up haunting the streets of New Orleans’s French quarter, a kind of detective hunting down clues about Madeline’s eccentric life. She even manages to convince Madeline’s husband Johnny—a complex, sympathetic character in his own right—to arrange a meeting with Madeline so that she can rid herself of this debilitating obsession. Of course, once the two women finally meet in person, the fire of Cleo’s fascination is fanned, not doused.
Both Cleo and Madeline are intriguing characters, although worlds apart in many ways. Woodrow spends ample time delving into each woman’s past and what their pasts mean for their present situations. Cleo has some particular family scars and trauma that she is both running from and constantly returning to. Madeline’s past shows up literally in a neat package that her mother drops off at her apartment; inside are mementos a former lover has left her upon her death. The way that Woodrow deals with each woman’s sexual orientation is refreshing: although she’s married (and in the process of breaking up with) a man, Madeline identifies as bisexual and has had a previous relationship with a woman. She scandalously tells Cleo when they first meet that she comes “from a long line of bisexuals on [her] mother’s side.” Cleo, the boyish lesbian, has never had a relationship at all, and was frightened off by the mainstream lesbian bar scene in Toronto when she tried to explore what her crushes on women meant. After this failure to feel like a ‘real’ lesbian, Cleo swears off love. That is, of course, until she meets the mysterious and alluring Madeline. If anything could have been improved about this novel, it’s that this eventual meeting is a bit too slow in coming; I realize that Woodrow is cultivating suspense, but it takes the novel a fair amount of time to really take off. The love story at the heart of the novel is definitely worth the delay, though, so I would advise you to persevere if you find the first sections of the novel a bit sluggish.
The sultry tale of Cleo’s first love and rediscovery of love on Madeline’s part is paired brilliantly with the setting of New Orleans. The smoky, dreamy atmosphere of the humid summer streets of the city’s vibrant French quarter are the perfect breeding ground for Cleo’s journey. Toronto, in fact, comes off as a cold, uninviting place where Cleo was stifled emotionally and sexually. New Orleans is a place where the extraordinary—like Madeline’s wild swimming expeditions—seems inevitable; wandering the city at night, meandering along rivers and side streets, and drinking until the sun comes up are all everyday occurrences for Cleo, although she’s a shy, awkward aspiring poet at heart. The city holds possibilities she couldn’t have even dreamed of before arriving, the kinds of things she wouldn’t imagine except when drunk on bourbon and other less tangible intoxicants. It’s a cliché, but it doesn’t feel tired in Spelling Mississippi: Cleo needed to leave home in order to come full circle back to herself, to see herself more clearly. This journey is inextricably linked to Madeline, but it’s not only because of her. Similarly, Madeline’s later-in-life discoveries are connected to her meeting Cleo, but are already in motion before the two women meet. The novel is, then, both a poignant, sexy love story and one of self-discovery for two very different women; all of these journeys are beautifully and memorably rendered by Marnie Woodrow, a writer whose other work I look forward to exploring further.