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BOOK REVIEW : The Things That Drive You Crazy Can Make You Whole : UGLY WAYS By Tina McElroy Ansa . Harcourt Brace: $19.95, 277 pages


In Tina McElroy Ansa's second novel, "Ugly Ways," we meet the formidable Lovejoy sisters--Betty, Emily and Annie Ruth--who have come together to mourn their mother's death.

Mudear, as their mother insisted on being called, is a matriarch who can hang with the toughest of them. Even from the grave, she looms larger than life, and Emily's got the shrink bills to prove it.

What makes the novel such an entertaining read is the way the narrative flows easily between the past and the present, and between different characters' perspectives. It is through this device that we learn about the sisters' childhood; what Mudear was like before "The Change" and, in a few heart-wrenching scenes, how their father went from being a traditionally strong, borderline abusive "masculine" figure to being weak and demoralized, both angry and powerless against the force that is Mudear.

Insanity is a major theme in the novel, especially since "The Change" does not refer to Mudear going through menopause, but to a time much earlier, when she simply withdrew from town life and became ruler-sovereign of the Lovejoy house. Once the eldest daughter, Betty, is 13 years old and Emily and Annie Ruth are 11 and 6, respectively, Mudear decides her days of playing Mommy to her husband and children are over. The children are gradually assigned all the household tasks, and Mudear decides to do only what makes her happy.

Mudear has extraordinary night vision and begins to garden after midnight, cultivating a wild, tropical garden that shocks her small-town, conservative Southern neighbors both because of its style and the hours its mistress keeps.

This is further exacerbated by the fact that Mudear spends all day watching television, redesigning the house or simply resting. The only person whose calls she accepts is a childhood friend, Carrie. The daughters quickly realize that their mother is considered the local loony by teachers and friends alike; the girls begin a delicate juggling act of keeping the cruelty of the outside world at bay, while simultaneously keeping Mudear abreast of all the relevant goings on.

When the daughters reconvene later, their ages ranging from 35 to 42, it is clear that they are still unsure what separates mere eccentricity from "craziness."

Annie Ruth, a successful television anchor woman, is plagued by visions of menacing cats, of which she has been afraid since childhood. But when she screams on air about a cat the nobody else can see, her sisters and her colleagues think that she is about to have a nervous breakdown again.

Emily, always the sensitive one, has more than passing thoughts of suicide and like Annie Ruth, depends entirely on her sisters to come to her rescue. Betty, the oldest, is the mother substitute for the other two sisters and while she is the successful proprietor of two hair salons, she bears the greatest amount of pain because it was her childhood that was cut short when Mudear decided to relinquish the household duties.

The novel is set in Mulberry, Ga., and it is clear that McElroy Ansa knows the region well. (It was also the setting of her highly praised first novel, "Baby of the Family.") The novel is as much a physical journey as an emotional journey.

Through McElroy Ansa's descriptions, she can fully visualize the Lovejoy home from the wild garden that is its shield to Mudear's private bathroom, painted in lavender and embellished with candles and dried flowers.

We also get full access to Betty's salons (an old-fashioned one, in town, for her older customers and a slick, marble enterprise in the local mall for her younger clientele), the murky, country river where Emily considers and reconsiders a final plunge and the kaolin mines where every day Poppa Lovejoy dirties his hands and boots in the white, chalky earth.

The sisters sort through the past as if it were some secret code that might unfetter a happier future and eventually, they come to understand that a mother's good intentions are rarely seen as good by any child and that the "ugly ways" they resented in Mudear are the same "ugly ways" that make them successful, independent (if slightly off-balanced) women. This potentially preachy message is offset by several brief chapters consisting solely of humorous musings from Mudear herself, sitting up in Parkinson's Funeral Home awaiting burial.

"Ugly Ways" pleases because the author, like a good small-town gossip, is not stingy with the details. She not only paints a vivid picture of three bright, beautiful and emotionally scarred African-American sisters, but through her writing gives us access to a world we may not know, but one that we can enjoy, appreciate and certainly, understand.

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