Hunger central theme in 'Million Dollar Road' _lowres

 

“Million Dollar Road” by Amy Conner, Kensington, 304 pages, $15

New Orleans author Amy Conner knows alligators.

A former co-owner of the world’s largest alligator farm, she knows them well enough to begin her compelling new novel, “Million Dollar Road,” from the point of view of Snowball, an 11-foot white alligator.

As unusual as this may sound, it is beautifully effective. The first line reads, “Something within Snowball craved blood and bone.” It’s a powerful beginning to a novel, especially one with an underlying theme of appetite.

Besides Snowball’s, the story is told from the points of view of three women. There’s 18-year-old Lireinne, who, at the beginning of the book, is employed as a “hoser” in the barns of the 400-acre alligator farm in Covington where Snowball resides. Lireinne is gorgeous, intelligent and determined. Although she dropped out of school to help support her younger brother and stepfather, she has a dream of someday visiting Paris. It is a dream she will never give up.

Lizzie has the means to go to Paris, or anywhere else, since she is married to the charming Con Costello, owner of the alligator farm. Lizzie, like Lireinne, came from humble beginnings. At 29, she has much more in the way of material things than she needs, but after only a few years of marriage to the philandering Con, she feels her life and marriage spinning out of control.

Introverted 40-year-old Emma grows organic produce that she sells at the Covington Farmer’s Market. She is prone to panic attacks, especially when she is contacted by her ex-husband who broke her heart when he left her for a younger woman. The ex-husband, of course, is Con Costello.

Conner takes us on a journey with these three women as their lives intersect. They are hungry for the things all of us need, particularly love and freedom. Con is just hungry for women and power. But the author doesn’t necessarily bash Con. He comes across as real — there are many Cons in the world.

Much of the novel is set on and around the alligator farm, and since this is turf Conner knows, the writing comes from a place of authority. And it is fascinating. Her descriptions transport the reader with ease, and without the use of metaphor, which Conner heavily employed in her previous novel, “The Right Thing.”

As the author invites us into the worlds of Lireinne, Lizzie and Emma, there is no mistaking who is who. She has skillfully created the voices of these strong characters, and, although they are all linked to Con, they are distinct individuals. Even though there are other male characters in the book, some readers may be reminded of the classic all-female Clare Booth Luce play, “The Women.”

Conner’s “The Right Thing” was a fine and sensitive novel. “Million Dollar Road” is better. The writing is more assured, the scenes tighter, the characters more complex. It is southern literary fiction that becomes almost a thriller for one chapter when Snowball escapes. It’s a complete package and a page-turner, too.

Will Lireinne get on track to fulfill her dream of going to Paris? Will Emma get out from under her hopeless love of Con? And will Lizzie discover what really matters most to her? Follow the “Million Dollar Road” and find out.