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  • Written by Louise Shaffer
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A Novel

Written by Louise ShafferAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Louise Shaffer

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List Price: $9.99

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On Sale: August 03, 2004
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-345-47864-1
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Miss Peggy, Dr. Maggie, and Miss Li’l Bit, friends and confidantes for nearly a lifetime, find it funny and bewildering that they have become icons in Charles Valley, Georgia. Little does the rest of the town know that beneath the irreproachable façades of its three doyennes lies an explosive decades-old secret that is about to be revealed.

Thirty-odd years ago the three Miss Margarets did something extraordinary, clandestine, and very illegal. Although they are haunted by the night that changed their lives, they believe that their crime was simply a matter of righting an egregious wrong. But when a stranger’s arrival in town and a tragic death open the floodgate of memory, their loyalty, friendship, and honor are tested in ways they could never have imagined—particularly when they have to contend with Laurel Selene, a young woman who has spent her life nursing an alcoholic mother and a huge grudge. Now Laurel is on the verge of discovering what happened the night the three Miss Margarets swore their oath of secrecy. Once she knows, will she reveal the truth about the three women she was raised to despise? Or will she face her own troubled history and put the dark legacy they all share behind them?

The Three Miss Margarets is an irresistible, page-turning exploration of the past and the myriad ways it exerts a hold on the present.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Chapter One

She’d gone to bed with her shoes on, and not by accident. She’d deliberately climbed under the covers fully clothed and pushed her shod feet down between the clean sheets. Because she felt like it. Because she was mad at the world at large and whatever force passed for God in particular. Because it was the kind of thing an icon didn’t do. And Margaret Elizabeth Banning, otherwise known as Miss Li’l Bit, definitely qualified as an icon in her little part of the world. Which just went to show that if you lived long enough, any old damn thing could happen to you. At least it could in a place as lacking in a sense of humor as Charles Valley. Humor and memory. There probably weren’t five people left in town who remembered that in her youth, at six feet tall, with far more nose than chin and a father who was, to put it politely, different, she had been considered a disaster. Then she was the homely-as-a-mud-fence daughter of the local lunatic who couldn’t get herself a man if her life depended on it. Now she was an icon.

“That Miss Li’l Bit,” the locals would say, to visitors who’d come to Charles Valley to soak up its southern charm and visit its world-famous horticultural center, “she’s the real thing—Old South to her toes. She’s a Banning on her daddy’s side. They’ve been here since before the War of Northern Aggression, which is what we like to call it.” Pause to allow the listener to chuckle at adorable southern humor. “She still lives in that big old white house that’s been in the Banning family since her great-granddaddy bought it in eighteen sixty-eight. Runs it herself, does Miss Li’l Bit, just has that girl Cora come in to do for her twice a week. And she keeps up the Old Justine Gardens too. Well, they’re not the originals, you understand, but she redid them close to. The Justine family is famous in these parts. They owned a plantation that covered all of Lawson County until the family lost it during Reconstruction. Miss Li’l Bit’s great-granddaddy bought the big house and the gardens around it to keep it from going for taxes. The Justines were his wife’s people, cousins a couple of times removed. And Miss Li’l Bit, she keeps the gardens like they were back in the olden days. Why, she’s even got some magnolia trees that were put in a hundred years ago.” Pause for inevitable tourist response to quaint local eccentricities. “Yes, ma’am, I guess we Southerners do take our history real serious. And Miss Li’l Bit—like I said, she’s the real thing.”

Well, the “real thing” was lying like a lump under her blankets, wearing the skirt and blouse she’d put on yesterday morning, her support hose, and her second-best pair of Natural Bridge oxfords. Her admirers would be shocked. And if they knew what else she’d done in her time. . . . But she wasn’t going to think about that.

She hoisted herself up in bed so she could read the clock on her nightstand. The numbers were insultingly large, meant for eyes that were starting to fail, although of course the salesgirl who suggested it had not said so. Her nap had lasted forty-four minutes. Pleased, she turned off the vanquished alarm. She prided herself on waking before the thing went off, because no clock was going to tell her when it was time to stop sleeping. Especially not tonight. She was in control tonight. She had to be.

Slowly, she pulled herself out of bed, her knees giving her the hard time she’d come to expect. But she wasn’t going to coddle them. Tonight there was no such thing as aching joints. Tonight her body would have to perform.

The phone rang. “Yes, Peggy,” she said, too quickly to give the caller time to identify herself. Proving she was still in control. Staying a step ahead of the music.

“We’re here,” said Peggy. Her voice sounded tired, not too young for her age as it usually did. “Maggie’s in the cabin. I came out to call you from the car phone.”

“I assumed as much.” It was indulgent and needlessly showy to have rented a car with a telephone in it, and she’d told Peggy so when she got the foolish thing.

“Do you need me to come get you?” Peggy asked.

“No, I’ll be fine on my own.”

“It’s real cold out, Li’l Bit. Couldn’t you please drive?”

“I’ll have my flashlight, and I’ll take the shortcut over the ridge.” Impossible to explain how much she needed the short walk alone in the dark to collect her thoughts.

There was a weary laugh on the other end of the phone.

“What’s so funny?” she demanded.

“Maggie said you’d want to walk through the woods. She says when you’re alone in the woods that’s when you pray.”

That was total nonsense. She did not pray—not in the mealy-mouthed way most people meant—she never had and she never would. She left the praying to Maggie, who insisted in believing in her saints and Madonnas in spite of having a first-class mind and an excellent education.

Peggy continued. “That’s what we’ve been doing, Li’l Bit. We’ve been praying. Maggie gave me her rosary beads and we’ve been saying that prayer to Jesus’ mother. I never thought I could do it tonight, but somehow having those beads in your hands really helps. And it’s much easier praying to a woman; at least that’s how it feels to me. Maybe I should convert to Catholicism after all these years. What do you think?” She laughed again, and sounded close to tears. Too close.

“Peggy, how much have you been drinking?”

Pause. “Not more than usual. And Maggie’s sharp as a tack. She’s remembering everything. So if you’ll just change your clothes, the three Miss Margarets will be fine.”

“I wish you wouldn’t use that ridiculous phrase. It makes us sound like a Gilbert and Sullivan trio.” No need to address the issue of changing her clothes. Maggie and Peggy knew her too well.

“Li’l Bit, stop stalling. It’s not as bad as you’re afraid it’s gonna be.” There were times when Peggy could be unpleasantly clear-sighted. “Just get yourself over here now,” she said, and hung up.

Peggy was right. It was time to get on with it. Li’l Bit took a moment to steady herself, then marched into her bathroom, where she’d already laid out her clean clothes. Her freshly ironed clothes, thank you very much.

As she entered the bathroom, a dog the size and color of Gentle Ben heaved herself up from her resting place on top of the heating vent and came over, her long brush of a tail wagging happily. Automatically Li’l Bit reached out in time to save a box of tissues that was perched on the vanity before it went flying.

“Petula’s lights are usually on dim,” Peggy had said, when she conned Li’l Bit into adopting the half-starved mongrel, “but she’ll be a true and believing acolyte. You two need each other.” Peggy was ruthless when it came to finding homes for strays that were left at the shelter she had founded; she’d talked poor Maggie into taking three. Peggy named her dogs after performers she had admired over the years. Giving them a little pizzazz, was the way she put it.

“Not now,” Li’l Bit said to the dog. “I can’t take you for a walk. Go back to sleep.” Petula sighed and plopped back down on the vent. Li’l Bit picked up her comb and began to drag it painfully through hair she hadn’t touched in days.

It was so like Peggy to turn to the sloppy comfort of Maggie’s religion. Well, let them chant over their beads and confess their sins and beg for God’s mercy. Li’l Bit would not be joining them. She did not need mercy. And as for praying to God, she sincerely hoped she’d been right all her life and no such being existed. If one did, he or she had much to answer for.

Suddenly the comb became too heavy. She put it down and turned away from the mirror. Petula was still watching her. Li’l Bit lowered herself to the floor, ignoring the grumbling of her knees, and wrapped her arms around the dog’s neck, burying her face in thick black fur. But she was not crying. On this night she would not shed one tear.

Peggy got out of the car and looked at the cabin in front of her. In spite of her brave words to Li’l Bit, she needed a minute before going back inside. She leaned back against the car and looked up at the stars. She shouldn’t have teased Li’l Bit by bringing up the three Miss Margarets. They’d been called that for as long as anyone could remember, but Li’l Bit hated it. It was the idea of being lumped together that made her so mad. Li’l Bit’s fascination with her own uniqueness had always been a pain in the butt. Lately, some of the things she’d been doing were downright weird, like that trick of hers of going to sleep in her clothes. Maggie said it was a form of depression. Well, they were all depressed, and mad, and desperately sad too, but Peggy couldn’t see the point in letting yourself go. If anything, she’d been even more careful to keep herself together. She’d had her hair done early that morning before she and Maggie drove to Atlanta. But then she’d always been one for keeping up appearances. So often they were all you had. In her mid-sixties, she was still the perfect size six she’d been when being a size six meant something. She favored the cotton-candy shade of blond that had done so much for Marilyn Monroe’s career, fringed her china-blue eyes with black mascara, and accented her still-curvy mouth with a coral lipstick that was specially formulated not to settle into the cracks. No one had ever seen her wearing flats.

She forced herself to look at the cabin again. In the dark, the little house almost looked cozy. You couldn’t see the peeling paint and the weeds climbing up onto the porch. The old peach tree dying of neglect in the backyard wasn’t visible at night.

The cabin nestled at the foot of a curved ridge that separated Maggie’s thirty acres, the eighty-odd acres Li’l Bit owned, and the two hundred and sixty acres Peggy had inherited when she became the widow Garrison. Peggy, Li’l Bit, and Maggie split, not evenly, a pie-shaped piece of land that sat awkwardly in the middle of Highway 22. A dirt road connected the cabin at the center of the wedge with the highway. As was explained in the informative brochure provided to tourists by the Charles Valley Visitors Bureau, all this land had originally been the rolling lawns surrounding the Justine Great House. Back then the might of the family had been such that the road had been split to go around it. The configuration was kept when Highway 22 was put in decades later.

The lawns were long gone, as were the Justines. Over the years Maggie’s family had bought the piece she now owned, Li’l Bit’s people had acquired the chunk her house sat on, and the rest had been swallowed up by the Garrisons—as had just about everything else in the area. Much of the land between the houses was now a forest of wild pines and kudzu mixed with the remnants of old peach and pear orchards. All that remained of Justine grandeur besides Li’l Bit’s house were four huge live oaks, the last of a line of trees that once grew along the top of the ridge. Peggy looked up at them, ancient, silent witnesses to what she—what they all—would be doing that night. She shivered and scanned the ridge instead.

But there was no sign of Li’l Bit’s large frame emerging from the darkness. Why did she have to pick this night to go scampering through the forest like some outsized nymph? She had a perfectly good car; she could have driven like a sane person. The last thing they needed on this night was Li’l Bit with a broken leg. Peggy leaned back against the car, lit a cigarette, and tried not to want a drink. She’d deliberately left her engraved thermos (somehow it made being a lush better if your accessories were attractive) back at her house.

Maggie had had the electricity turned on in the cabin so a faint glow was coming from the shuttered windows, and the smell of the wood fire she and Maggie had laid in the fireplace was starting to perfume the air. Had the chimney been cleaned for this night or had Maggie been keeping it up all along? Even though she no longer owned it, Maggie still took care of the cabin. Peggy wished someone would tear the stupid thing down. She wished Li’l Bit would show up. She wished she could have a damn drink.

In the distance a dog started to bark. After a second, several more joined in. She sighed; they were probably hers. She had twelve dogs in residence at the moment. The Historical Society crowd was very upset with the way she let her darlings run free in the house, which was a Garrison home and therefore a shrine.

Once in the early eighties there had been talk about having the place turned into some kind of landmark, on the grounds that it was the largest log house in the nation, but the whole thing came to nothing when it was discovered that a country singer in Nashville had built a bigger one. So her babies continued to run the hallowed halls, scratching up the foyer with doggy toenails and periodically peeing on sacred heart-pine floors. A large wooden sign outside her home proclaimed it to be garrison cottage, a form of old-money understatement she had once found enchanting. Presidents and prime ministers had slept under that eight-thousand-square-foot tin roof; there were brass plaques on the doors of the bedrooms to prove it. Sonny and Cher, her two pit bull– husky mixes, slept in the room some ambassador from France had used when he stayed with the Garrisons in the fifties. The three-legged black Lab puppy she’d named Elvis swam in the pool where FDR had taken his daily exercise.

Peggy stubbed out her cigarette carefully in the dirt driveway. All they needed was a fire tonight. Funny to think that as ambivalent as she was about her home now—and there were days when she really hated it—there had been a time when she had wanted it enough to pay any price for it. Be careful what you wish for, children.

The barking trailed off. The cabin still loomed in front of her. And the night still stretched out ahead of them. It wasn’t right to leave Maggie on her own this long. She took a deep breath and started toward the cabin, then stopped. Just a few minutes more, she told herself. She lit another cigarette and looked up at the stars again.

Inside the cabin, Maggie closed the bedroom door behind her and moved into the living room. The important thing was to keep focused, she told herself. Just think about one thing at a time. And stay in the present. No wandering back to the past and getting lost in days long gone. There would be no escaping tonight, though normally she believed in it with all her heart. Escapism, denial, and the occasional lie were the Holy Trinity of survival as far as she was concerned. To hell with the psychiatrists. Let them live to be eighty-six, then they could talk to her. The fact was, she’d always been tougher than she looked. When you were not quite five feet tall, had never weighed more than ninety-seven pounds, and had a face that had once been described as doll-like, people tended to underestimate you—which was a big mistake.

She looked around the room, checking to see if she’d missed a dust ball or a spiderweb when she’d cleaned it. It was spotless. But it was all wrong, because it was empty. If she closed her eyes for just a minute, Maggie could see it the way it should be, with the things that belonged there. There were four kitchen chairs and a wooden table with a red linoleum top in one corner, a sagging bed that served as both a sofa and place to sleep rammed against the wall. Tossed over it, a hand-stitched quilt pieced together from scraps of denim, blue jeans, and overalls that had become too frayed to mend, and backed with old flour sacks; the antiques dealers who descended on Charles Valley every weekend would pay a fortune for that quilt today. A rag rug—also handmade—protected the precious wood floor, and dominating the center of the back wall was an old Philco cabinet radio purchased secondhand after electricity was installed in the cabin. Those were the things that belonged in this room. She could see it all clear as day, and she could hear the voices laughing. But she mustn’t let herself. Not now. Later would be time enough to escape. Now she had to be clear.

She moved to the window and looked out at Peggy standing next to the car. The poor thing still hadn’t gotten up the nerve to come back in. Well, it was only natural. She was the youngest of the three of them, and she hadn’t had as much time to toughen. Besides, Peggy never had been as strong as she and Li’l Bit were.

Maggie was feeling very strong tonight. She was a little light-headed, and her heart was fluttering. But given the fact that it had been broken, it was doing well to beat at all.

She pulled away from the window and looked back at the bedroom. It wasn’t empty. It was fully equipped.

When she first joined the Roman Catholic Church it was the Agnus Dei that attracted her, a mantra of forgiveness that seemed to her to be the heart of her new faith. The priests said it in Latin then, the majesty of the language giving it a power that was reassuring in those years when she had been so young and needy. The words floated through her mind now.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

“Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.”

But would He? Or had they finally gone too far? The fluttering in her chest pushed up to her throat; the light-headedness became a roaring in her ears. Palpitations, she diagnosed, good doctor that she was. A reduction of stress was what she would prescribe. Her mind made a frantic dash for safety, away from this empty room back to the time when it had been the center of a home. Back to the time when two young girls rolled back the rag rug and danced the Charleston on the wood floor.

That was when it had all begun for her. That was the time that had made her different. Because she and Peggy and Li’l Bit were all different. That was why they had been able to do what they had done. And it was why, after so many years, they were able to do what they were going to do now. Maggie sighed and closed her eyes. It had all come full circle, and it was right to have it happen here in this cabin, where they had made decisions and changed lives. For the better, she prayed. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

And now the circle was complete. Except for the one loose end they’d never been able to fix. Except for the girl.

“Maggie?” Peggy’s gentle voice yanked Maggie back from her thoughts. She blinked and saw Li’l Bit and Peggy standing in the doorway of the cabin. Peggy was looking like she’d love to run. Behind her, Li’l Bit was trying to be stoic and succeeding except for her eyes.

“Are you okay, Maggie?” Peggy asked.

She nodded. Of course she was. Now that they were together she was fine. “I was just thinking,” she said.


From the Hardcover edition.
Louise Shaffer|Author Q&A

About Louise Shaffer

Louise Shaffer - The Three Miss Margarets

Photo © Bill Morris

Louise Shaffer is the author of Family Acts,, The Ladies of Garrison Gardens and The Three Miss Margarets. A graduate of Yale Drama School, she has written for television, and has appeared on Broadway, in TV movies, and in daytime dramas, earning an Emmy for her work on Ryan’s Hope. Shaffer and her husband live in the Lower Hudson Valley.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Louise Shaffer

Laurel Selene leads the author Louise Shaffer into the office of the
Charles Valley Gazetteer for an interview that will run in the paper
sometime in 2004. As they make their way to the back where Laurel’s
desk is, Shaffer looks around in awe.

Louise Shaffer: Wow! This place looks exactly the way I
pictured it.

Laurel Selene: I imagine that’ll be true for just about anyplace
you go in Charles Valley.

Louise: You mean because I—well, “created it” sounds kind
of grand. You know, like singers calling themselves artists,
which always makes me antsy, because I think you should wait
for someone else to say it. I mean, maybe you aren’t really.
Maybe you’re just someone who’ll be forgotten in ten years.
Mozart was an artist, but I’m not sure the boy group du jour
is. (pause) What were we talking about?

Laurel: You have a tendency to wander, don’t you?

Louise: Usually. But before we start, there is something I
want to ask you.

Laurel: Shoot.

Louise: How weird is it for you to be interviewing me when
I’m the one who, you know . . .

Laurel: Created me? (Shaffer nods.) Probably about as weird as
it is for you to be interviewed by me.

Louise: Okay. Glad we got that out of the way. We can start
now.

Laurel: Thanks. I did some research on you, and I found out
that writing wasn’t your first career. You started out as an actress,
and—

Louise: (breaking in) Anyone who read my book jacket knows
that.

Laurel: Maybe we need to set some ground rules here. You
may be the creator, but I’m the interviewer, okay?

Louise: Sorry. Yeah, I was an actress. I did Broadway, repertory
theater, prime-time TV, commercials. I toured the country
in a rock musical which, for a woman who thought vocal
music ended with Puccini and had no sense of rhythm, was
kind of a stretch.

Laurel: And you acted in the soaps. Or do you prefer to call
it “daytime drama”?

Louise: Not really. That dates back to a time when we were
trying to be Serious Culture, but it never really stuck. Which
isn’t to say that I don’t have total respect for the soaps, because
I do. We did the same amount of work in one day that nighttime
television did in a week or ten days and we . . . I’m wandering
again, right?

Laurel: All over hell and creation. So you won an Emmy and
three nominations for acting on a soap opera called Ryan’s
Hope
. Then you were nominated for the writing Emmy six
times for your work on As the World Turns and Ryan’s Hope
have I got that right?

Louise: Actually one of the nominations was for All My
Children
, but I like the way you managed to slip that in. Very
slick.

Laurel: I try. So with all that why did you decide to start
writing novels?

Louise: I’m not sure I actually did decide to do any of it. For
one thing, I’d always written. When I was a kid I wrote plays,
short stories, even some really bad poetry. But then I discovered
acting and it was so much easier, and there was applause
as soon as you finished, which was really nice for someone
who, as you pointed out, has a short attention span. Because
you have to wait a couple of years to find out if people like a
book you’ve written.

Laurel: Sounds like approval is important to you.

Louise: Are you kidding? I’m an approval junkie.

Laurel: And you really think acting is easier than writing?

Louise: Maybe it isn’t easier, but writing means more responsibility.
It’s your ideas and your story on those pages. But I
think they’re different sides of the same kind of work. It’s
about the characters, after all. I use all my acting techniques to
write my characters. For instance, I tell each piece of the story
from one character’s point of view. So it always has a personal
component and bias.

Laurel: Could you explain that, please?

Louise: Let me relate it to acting. If you’re playing Lady
Macbeth, you don’t see yourself as a shrew who married a man
with the IQ of an artichoke and drove him to commit murder;
you see yourself as a loving wife trying to help your husband
reach his full potential. That’s your point of view.


Laurel: Okay. Any other—um, techniques?

Louise: Keep it motivated. When I was acting I never did
anything unless I understood why I was doing it and could justify
it in terms of my character’s past and what she wants in the
present. As a writer I make sure that happens with all of my
characters. Except, sometimes I need a character to do something
for the sake of the plot that isn’t right for her. When I
was acting, I’d just say, “I’m sorry, this isn’t something my
character would do.” And then it was up to the writer to fix
the problem. Now I’m the writer and the “problem-fixer.” I
spend a lot of time talking to myself. Well, yelling at myself
really.

Laurel: So how did you start writing again?

Louise: Actually it was the Emmy that did it. And an earthquake.
Three months after I won the Emmy I was fired. And I
couldn’t get any more work because I was over forty. As a producer
friend of mine (who is no longer a friend) said to me,
“Sweetie, you’re just not sexually viable anymore.”

Laurel: Did you hit him?

Louise: Nah. I was an actor, I was used to taking abuse. Besides,
he was a producer, and as an actor you’re always thinking
that maybe someday he’ll have a part for you and you’ll get to
make a comeback. I mean, look at Gloria Stuart. (pause) I
think we’re both wandering now.

Laurel: It’s catching. So how did an earthquake make you
start writing novels?

Louise: First, I need to back up and tell you I married a
southern boy, which was the smartest thing I ever did in my
life.

Laurel: If you say so.

Louise: I know you’ve had a hard time finding what we used
to call in the soaps a romantic interest here in Charles Valley.
But trust me, this place is a walk in the park compared to the
dating scene in Manhattan. Especially if you work in show
business. The statistics alone are—

Laurel: (interrupting) Okay, okay. I watch Sex and the City,
too. About novel writing . . . ?

Louise: Like I said, I married a southerner, which meant I
had a wonderful southern mother-in-law. My husband and I
and his two kids were out in Los Angeles trying to revive my
dying acting career when this huge earthquake hit. A freewaysshifting-
under-the-cars-and-whitecaps-on-the-swimmingpool-
size earthquake. Three people got through on the phone
to L.A. that day, and one of them was my mother-in-law, Clara.
She wanted to know when her son was going to stop dragging
her grandbabies all over the place and come back home where
he belonged.

Laurel: Home being the South.

Louise: Also known as God’s Country. I’m still not quite sure
how it happened, but the next thing I knew, I was living in an
old farmhouse in this beautiful town in rural Georgia. At first
I thought my life was over. I’m a big-city person and here I was
surrounded by nature. But then everything started coming together.
Like I said, I’d always played around with writing, but
I never had a story to tell. Well, I started making friends, because
in a small town in the South you just do. I know you
can’t make generalizations about people, but it seems to me
that there is a certain breed of woman in the South. They’re
smart and strong and they accomplish the most incredible
things, but they still remember last Thursday was your birthday
and get you the card on time. And even if they haven’t seen
you in months they ask how your mama is doing after that hip
surgery. They just blow me away.

Laurel: The Steel Magnolias thing.

Louise: And it goes deeper than that. I met women who
were so strong in their beliefs. We’re talking heavy-duty moral
compass. I come from a mindset where you’d die before you’d
make a value judgment. But these women were totally convinced
they knew what was right and what was wrong. And in
one case, I felt she’d take responsibility for that—even break
the law if she thought it was necessary—to right a wrong or
protect someone who was vulnerable. And she’d live with the
consequences. That was what gave me the core idea for The
Three Miss Margarets
.

Laurel: That kind of answers my next question, which was
going to be, Why did a woman from Connecticut want to
write about the South? I don’t know how you could not want to write about
could not want to write about the South, or paint it, or something. It’s so full. The food is so rich and good, and the music, and the flowers. There’s nothing
like the way Georgia explodes in the spring. And there’s a
sense of history—more than that really, it’s a sense of legacy.
That’s one of my favorite themes. I love any book that explores
the impact of the past on the present. That said, one of
the things I worried about was making sure I kept the book
true to the South. So my husband read every page as I was
writing it, and if he thought I’d slipped he’d say, “You’re talking
Yankee-speak here.”

Laurel: So it was the move to Georgia that started your career
as a novelist.

Louise: I was too scared to take it on right away, so I wrote
for the soaps first. Writing is very lonely and acting is total col-
laboration, and I needed to ease into the isolation, I think. On
the soaps, I was a staff writer, which kind of split the difference.
But eventually I got to a place where I’d had the story for
The Three Miss Margarets in my head for so long that I had to
see if I could put it on paper.

Laurel: And the title of your book? Did you know three
women named Margaret who were good friends?

Louise: Not exactly. But I did know of three women who all
had the same name and were behind-the-scenes powerhouses.
They were older, they came from money (although that was
never mentioned), they counted their kin by the dozens and
the time their families had been in the town by generations.
They weren’t friends who hung out on the porch together like
my three Miss Margarets, but they did keep tabs on one another.
Kind of like rival queens. And then there was a woman
I adored who had a childhood nickname, and when she grew
up everyone just attached Miss to it, like Miss Li’l Bit.

Laurel: So what’s up for you next? Working on anything
new?

Louise: Right now I’m writing a sequel to The Three Miss
Margarets
.

Laurel: Really? What’s it about?

Louise: A character who only got mentioned in the first
book, someone named Myrtis Garrison.

Laurel: Grady’s mother.

Louise: And you.

Laurel: Oh.

Louise: So I really can’t tell you anything more.


Laurel: No, I can see how that would be—

Louise: —too weird.

Laurel: Yes. Well, I want to thank you for your time.

Louise: Is that it? You don’t need anything more from me?

Laurel: Not unless there’s something else you want to say.
You are the creator.

Louise: But you’re the interviewer.

Laurel: Yeah. (pause) So, that’s it.

Praise

Praise

“Rich, funny . . . Fans of Fannie Flagg and Adriana Trigiani, take note. Shaffer has created a little piece of heaven.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer

“A ROMP OF A READ–warm but never smarmy, wise without pretense of profundity. Shaffer tells a good story that’s part mystery but mostly an exploration of loyalty and friendship.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“THE MISS MARGARETS ARE TREASURES . . . Shaffer unfolds the story deftly. . . . Each of the three Miss Margarets is a wonderfully realized character; each has a closely guarded secret life.”
The Boston Globe

“A HIGH LEVEL OF SUSPENSE . . . Drop by this charming Southern town. No doubt you’ll be invited to join the three Margarets
on the veranda and sip sweetened tea, lemonade, or even
Gentleman Jack . . . and enjoy the promise of a good read.”
The Roanoke Times

“PROVOCATIVE . . . A FUN READ. Those who appreciated Steel Magnolias and the ‘Ya Ya Sisters’ will enjoy this closely bonded group of women.”
Anniston Star (AL)

“Louise Shaffer is a magnificent storyteller. She weaves a tale so rich and compelling, you will be unable to put it down. A triumph!”
–ADRIANA TRIGIANI
Author of the Big Stone Gap trilogy

“[A] fine first novel . . . A surprising amount of suspense . . . Shaffer explores the familiar territory of the small-town South, its undying issues of race and class, with insight, humor, and compassion.”
Orlando Sentinel

“I shouldn’t have started The Three Miss Margarets so late in the day, nor kept on reading into the early hours of the morning. But so I did, and a fine, satisfying story it was, too–well worth the loss of sleep.”
–ANN B. ROSS
Author of Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind

“Intriguing . . . The Three Miss Margarets is immensely appealing in its depth of characterization. . . . Readers are sure to enjoy getting to know these women for their strength, daring, and selflessness.”
Times Daily (Florence, AL)

“A can’t-put-it-down Southern tale [with] a good plot and a sense of mystery.”
The Columbus Dispatch

“A SOUTHERN GOTHIC WITH A SENSE OF HUMOR.”
Poughkeepsie Journal

“What a pleasure it is to hear the voice of Louise Shaffer, and all the wonderful characters she brings to life in The Three Miss Margarets. An entire world is splendidly evoked, a gripping mystery heightens the tension, and always we are guided along with great skill by the fresh, funny voice of the author. I loved this book.”
–MARK CHILDRESS
Author of Crazy in Alabama

“The story never lags, leaping back and forth between present and past, showing how much the latter creates the former. Shaffer has a pleasing way with a phrase.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Lively . . . A homey, Southern narrative voice . . . Shaffer has a knack for building complex characters with clever, cutting lines.”
Book magazine

“[A] winning debut . . . The three Miss Margarets are wholly imagined, rich creations whose reticence speaks volumes about their time and place.”
Publishers Weekly

“GLORIOUS . . . A TRIUMPH.”
TV Guide Online

“Thick with mystery and heartbreak and unforgettable characters, The Three Miss Margarets is a story of yearning and love and redemption, of uncommon and unquenchable friendships stretching across race and class, compellingly illuminated by a writer with a razor-keen understanding of the heart.”
–KEN WELLS
Author of Meely LaBauve

The Three Miss Margarets invites readers on a roller-coaster journey spanning three generations of laughter, secrets, and tears.”
Soaps in Depth

“Thrilling . . . [Shaffer] builds into her time-tripping page-turner enough heartbreak and cliffhangers to keep SOAPnet in plot twists for years.”
In Touch Weekly

“Shaffer unravels this tale with skill, building enough sense of foreboding to be enticing as she reveals the backgrounds of the major characters . . . and brings it all to a satisfying conclusion.”
Booklist

THE THREE MISS MARGARETS ARE TREASURES . . . Shaffer unfolds the story deftly and slowly, evoking the climate of racial hatred and class tension that led, many years before, to a series of crimes. Each of the three Miss Margarets is a wonderfully realized character; each has a closely guarded secret life.”
The Boston Globe
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. When the three Miss Margarets took the law into their own hands, there were fatal consequences. Do you think they were justified in what they did?

2. As we discover early in the novel, Josh is not exactly who he appears to be. Do you think he is a trustworthy character? What exactly are his intentions, and how do they shift? How do your feelings for him change throughout the novel? Do you think he and Laurel are ultimately meant to be together?

3. For their era, the three Miss Margarets were unusual women in the sense that none of them had settled down into conventional families. Does a lack of that kind of responsibility or connection empower a woman to think outside the box? Do relationships and focusing on others hinder us in some ways? Do you think the unraveling of events would have occurred in the same way had all three Miss Margarets been wives and/or mothers?

4. Throughout the course of The Three Miss Margarets, the author often shifts the setting back in time. What effect do these flashbacks have on the reader? And why does Shaffer especially focus on the three Miss Margarets’ adolescences when she revisits their pasts?

5. The action the three Miss Margarets took thirty years ago continues to have repercussions for them and Laurel. Has any decision you’ve ever made affected you for many years? Do you think the three Miss Margarets have any ultimate regrets about what they did? How did other characters’ choices, particularly those of Vashti and Grady, for example, affect them emotionally?

6. Do you agree with Dr. Maggie that happiness usually comes to you when you aren’t necessarily looking for it, through unexpected ways–often through one’s line of work? Do you agree with her that the one great source of joy in life that you can control is the work you do? On another note, do you think Maggie would still have become a workaholic if she had been able to love freely?

7. Discuss the prominence of alcohol in The Three Miss Margarets. How does it affect the characters and how they interact with each other? Do you think its presence is unhealthy in every instance throughout the novel?

8. It seems that Li’l Bit’s relationship with Walter Bee was defined by limitations. Why do you think they didn’t move in together or get married? What was their ultimate downfall? Do you understand Li’l Bit’s rationale for lying to Walter? What do you think would have happened if she had told him the truth?

9. Is the Southern locale of The Three Miss Margarets essential to the novel? Do you think events would have played out differently in a different location?

10. Louise Shaffer worked as an actress and a television writer for many years. Do you think that background is reflected in the way she writes novels? In her use of dialogue, her way of setting the scene for the reader, and her development of character? Do you think this book has a particularly theatrical feel to it? Would it make a good film or television movie?

11. If you answered yes to the last question and you think TheThree Miss Margarets would make a good movie, for the fun of it discuss how you’d cast such a production.

12. To varying degrees all the women in The Three Miss Margarets had unhappy or difficult childhoods. So often we find that is the case with remarkable or especially accomplished
people. Do you think early unhappiness or difficulty is a prerequisite for greatness later on? Or can happy children become extraordinary adults?

13. Do you wish Laurel had stayed in New York, either with Josh or on her own? Do you feel that her roots are in Charles Valley and that she needs to work out her life in this town? Or do you wish she had turned away from all the pain she suffered there and gotten a fresh start?

14. By coming back to join Li’l Bit, Maggie, and Peggy on the porch, Laurel forgives them for what they did to her and her mother. She also agrees to keep their secret. Should she have done that?




From the Hardcover edition.

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