Brief Synopsis: An energetic young librarian embarks on a campaign to save her library when the local City Council threatens to shut it down in favor of an industrial park.
The Cherry Cola Book Club by Ashton Lee is a well-researched and light-hearted integration of classic Southern literature into modern conversation. However, while it spends plenty of time paying homage to such classics as Gone with the Wind and To Kill A Mockingbird, it does not do much to interact with the topics those books deal with so thoroughly.
Maura Beth Mayhew is a young librarian in the small town of Cherico, Mississippi. Like many small and underfunded libraries, as the digital age comes into full swing, the library in Cherico has seen a decrease in patronage and revenue. The City Council believes that the land the library sits on could be better used as an industrial park, hopefully bringing in new businesses to increase revenue and jobs. The Council gives Mara Beth just a few months to prove that the library is worth keeping around by demonstrating an increase in circulation and usage. In order to do this, she starts a book club and potluck to entice the public. Over the next few months leading up to the budget meeting which will decide the fate of the library, she makes several new friends and goes to great lengths to prove the value of the library.
As someone who (obviously) loves libraries and classic literature, this book jumped eagerly off the shelf of my own library at me. However, I was disappointed that Lee did little to integrate the themes of the classics with the modern plot. The characters discuss the classics from time to time, but the conversations are brief and relatively shallow.
The plot itself is interesting enough, but the characters seem almost like parodies of actual Southern characters at times. The dialect doesn’t bother me, in fact I thought it added charm and atmosphere to the story. However, I wanted to roll my eyes at so many of the conversations. Perhaps I feel this way because I live in a state that is on the border of Southern and Midwestern; often the characters felt overdone and clownish rather than genuine. Additionally, the characters were incredibly polarized in their beliefs. There was no middle ground represented by people who were uncertain or considered both sides regarding the library issue, although there were a few who mentioned moderate opinions on divisive questions that arose from literary discussions. I found it unrealistic and a bit disheartening that everyone Maura Beth knew would be 100% for keeping the library if the economy truly was as it was described, not because I don’t see the value of the library but because many of the characters who stand with Maura Beth do so with an intense, sudden change of heart. As a reader, I want the library to win, but I also want people to have deep-rooted convictions that do not change on a whim simply because a neighbor or customer asks them to support something that they had previously not cared about at all. On the other side, the Councilman who wants to get rid of the library never truly considers the value that it brings to the community. Instead, he only thinks in terms of revenue and votes. I would have appreciated more depth to the characters and a possibility for compromise, rather than everyone having a “my way or the highway!” attitude.
Aside from the cheesy exaggeration of Southern personalities and polarized opinions formed suddenly and without much apparent thought, The Cherry Cola Book Club is an enjoyable read. It’s a call for all readers to remember their libraries, and to stand up for the things you believe in when they are in need. If you enjoy feel-good stories with a strong Southern twang, I encourage you to check this one out. I will warn you though: it is a series with six books out so far, and I am unsure whether the series is finished or not. The books also include recipes featuring some of the dishes the characters bring to the potluck portion of the book club. In fact, I might be making a Cherry Cola Sheet Cake in the future by the recipe included – if it turns out well, I will be sure to post an update here!