Willow Row

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Lizzie St. Claire has had just about all she can take. Her marriage ended on a sour note after her husband, the music professor, had a duet with a violinist half his age. Her beloved grandmother, Celeste, went and died on her without so much as a goodbye. And now she must face her family, and the emotional riptide they can churn out, in her hometown of Willow Row, South Carolina. Not only must Lizzie endure the fallout after the death of the family matriarch, but Celeste has graciously decided to haunt her. Her grandmother insists she can only rest in peace if Lizzie can find some peace of her own with The Family in the small town she once vowed to never call home again.

Reviews

“Again, Ms Phillips has submitted for review a new Woman’s Romance so captivating, I  could not put it down. It has lingered with me for days and still has me smiling and thinking about it. I have always felt I had not become the woman I am until my mid to late 30’s. It is unrealistic to think you are the same at the age of 25 as you are at 35. Many books are written for young romance. Lisa Phillips has wowed me with this story of Lizzie St. Claire coming back to Willow Row, S.C., the small town she left…couldn’t wait to leave,  to bury her idol, her grandmother Celeste.  I hope you enjoy this as much as I have.

I am a Northerner born and bread in NYC. The author had me drifting back in my memories finding differences but also some of the sameness, and I could relate.. Ms. Phillips brings us to a small town in the South, whose ideals are between the old and new. I found though, that even though there they had balmy nights and sultry days and we shoveled snow, families are still probably much the same.

Lizzie is the oldest of three children, She is a “St. Claire” which means a lot in Willow Row. She left to go to college, married an outsider, and is just newly divorced. Grandmother Celeste was the matriarch, and lived ‘in the big house’ where Lizzie found solace. Her Grandmother knew Lizzie felt she was  a square peg in a round hole and cannot leave this earth without fixing this. Upon Lizzie’s return for the funeral, she meets up with the ghostly Celeste and we are drawn into Lizzie and her grandmothers wonderful “chats” and along with Lizzie we learn more about “the perfect” St. Claires of Willow Row.

Daddy is movie star handsome, an attorney with a philandering eye. Mommy is  pretty, polished, well-dressed and part of the  Woman’s Club set.Does she just  look away from Daddy’s other activities??? Perfect, beautiful, younger sister Cassie was the Homecoming Queen at USC, has a perfect marriage, is a perfect wife, 2 perfect children; you get my drift. Can you be perfect forever??? Last but not least, brother Ashton, now 32, working in Daddy’s Law Firm, handsome like his Daddy and spoiled rotten. Ashton has been Lizzie’s since he was a toddler, they adore each other. He is to inherit the family business. What would happen if he fell in love with someone Daddy and Mommy, and polite society, didn’t approve of??? Grace is more than a housekeeper and cook. She and her granddaughter Julia give us the ‘inner circle’ but I couldn’t help laughing and  thinking about ‘the 3 aunts’ that plagued this family just like my very similar 3 aunts that plagued mine. They were so full of themselves and their agendas, and the similarity was not missed by me.

Grandmother Celeste was a spitfire in her day, marrying ‘into’ the family and has an idea up her sleeve called Brady Ralston. He is a contractor she hired to work on her house when she got the news that she had only a short time left to live. Brady is living in the carriage house, and when Celeste pops in for her first chat with Lizzie…the story begins.

This is so the story of a woman coming into her own and finding herself. On this path, she has to look back, and as she does, she sees what she thought of herself   then was not how others saw her. In doing so, she finally finds  her worth now and boy does that have an effect on the other family members…Lizzie has found her groove.

Another interesting point I would like to make, is how our author makes us view  the south,  in all it’s glorious Gone With the Wind splendor. The manners, the cooking, the family, the smells coming from Grace’s kitchen;  fried tomatoes, moon pies and fried chicken. My little NYC self can only imagine this wonderful life-style with rolling meadows, whispering springs, beautiful balmy nights with the sounds of frogs and crickets, the small of lilacs and gardenias in the air.

Ms. Phillips has taken this one place, Willow Row, and woven an intricate  story of love, pain, heartbreak, and strength and laugh out loud moments that I will not soon forget. I applaud her and it is a book EVERY WOMAN SHOULD READ. 

5 Stars Lisa Phillips”

Gloria Lakritz, Paranormal Romance Reviews

“Elizabeth St. Claire grew up as one “The St. Claires” in the small South Carolina town of Willow Row, where the old south is not dead and there is no new money but old money. She hated it and couldn’t wait to get out, and she got out in a big way. Much to her daddy’s dismay, she went to  The University of Tennessee, she married an outsider, moved to Atlanta and comes back to Willow Row only once or twice a year when she must.

Now, a divorced woman, she returns to Willow Row to attend the funeral of one of only two people there that she can truly say she misses, her grandmother Celeste.  Celeste was the grand dame of the family, she lived in “the big house” and really didn’t care much for the elite of Willow Row. She adored Lizzie, and she and her home were Lizzie’s refuge. Little does Lizzie know but Celeste has one more trick up her sleeve and even from the grave, the irrepressible old gal will not go quietly into the good night, not Celeste, she is going to stir the pot up good and enjoy every moment of the results from where ever she is.

Ms. Phillips takes the reader to the Old South that most don’t know still exists, a world of good manners, soft spoken women with a spine of steel, men who open doors, a place where no matter how old you get you still call your parents mama and daddy. A land of hot days and lazy nights and underneath it all the stuff of soap operas. This is not the south of the Housewives of Atlanta; no this is the south reminiscent of The Long Hot Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Being a southerner, this is the south I grew up in, and Ms. Phillips has captured that long lost south perfectly. Lizzie and her family are like most families of the old south, to the public eye they are perfect, but behind those closed doors of their perfect homes, they are one big dysfunctional mess.  

Lizzie is the oldest of three children, she writes children’s books and doesn’t think she lives up to the family standards. In actuality, she is the rock of the family. Grandmother Celeste knew this, and decided the only way Lizzie was ever going to come into her own was to give her a little boost. Too bad she had to die to do it.

Lizzie’s mama is 65 years old, sleek and polished, always dressed properly and thanks to Marcie at the Snip N Curl, never a hair out of place; she has to have a drink now and again to get through the days. Daddy looks like a young Gary Cooper, he owns a prosperous law firm and to Lizzie is “her knight in shining armor with a white horse parked at another woman’s door”.

Sister Cassie was homecoming queen at USC, perfect wife and perfect mother to two perfect children, she and Lizzie couldn’t be more different. Brother Ashton, at 32 years old, is a partner in Daddy’s law firm, well built and good looking he’s spoiled rotten and stole Lizzie’s heart as a toddler. He is the other person in Willow Row Lizzie feels is hers. 

Their household is rounded out with Grace, she was one of Celeste’s strays and raised Daddy, after his marriage, she moved in with them to help raise Lizzie and her siblings, and basically run the house. Other than the family, we will get to know Julia, Grace’s granddaughter who works in Daddy’s law firm as well, and was raised as a member of the family with the St. Claire children.

And then there is Celeste’s ace in the hole, Brady Ralston. He’s a contractor she hired to work on her house, and if Celeste has her way, he will be much more than that to Lizzie. What a wonderful group of people Ms. Phillips has given us to meet and enjoy, all with their little hidden secrets, all so deliciously southern and wrong. I loved each and every one of them.

This book is chock full of southernisms, trust me when I say it is spot on and felt like home to me. Yes, we call all soft drinks coke (even if they are 7up) except if we are eating a moon pie – then you have an RC Cola. After Lizzie had settled back in, she ran around in cotton dresses with her shoes off and her hair down. As I write this review, I’m sitting with my shoes off, in a sundress which is the uniform of any southern lady worth her salt and still smiling over my visit with Lizzie and the Family. You don’t have to be southern to enjoy this book. This is a story of one woman’s coming into her own and the world she lives in, warts and all.”

Penelope Adams, Paranormal Romance Reviews

Excerpt

My grandmother wasn’t one to pamper any of us. Tight as Dick’s hatband, Aunt Virginia’s husband, Uncle Murray, would mutter under his breath. Celeste figured if you had the St. Claire name it should be enough to get the ball rolling for you. After all, her life certainly took a turn for the better once she became one.

Celeste wasn’t born into wealth and social acceptability. The Covington’s aren’t listed anywhere on the social register. According to Mama, great granddaddy on that branch of the family tree was lucky not to have swung by his neck from it. Evidently he made a mean home brew, and folks knew he was the go-to-guy for a snoot full. The one thing Celeste’s mother did have to offer her only child was the determination my grandmother would do more with her life. And that could mean only one thing.

Marry up, darlin’!

Celeste being the cigarette girl with legs up to her pretty neck at the Willow Row Country Club was no coincidence. She said choosing from the well to do young men always trying to gain her attention was easy. My sweet granddaddy was the only one who took her to fancy restaurants where folks would see them together and actually wanted to have a conversation. With her.

It worked out well for everyone. Celeste’s mother approved of the heir to St. Claire Textiles, granddaddy got a wife he loved as well as liked, and Celeste got to be a St. Claire. Nobody…and I mean nobody was, is, or will ever be a St. Claire like my grandmother.

She moved into the big house long before my great grandparents passed on. The Family says there was talk of Granddaddy building her a home closer to her parents in Charleston, but Celeste liked the big house just fine, thank you very much. By the time twin girls, Virginia and Caroline, arrived my great grandparents were laid to rest, and Celeste had accomplished every dream her mama ever had for her.

Slowly but surely she began to put her own spin on century old family traditions. She faithfully attended the First Baptist Church of Willow Row, but didn’t hide the bottle of whiskey on her closet shelf, swearing it was strictly for medicinal purposes. She was known to frequent places usually reserved for… Well, let’s just say places no well-bred young lady would be caught dead. She didn’t only hire African Americans to work in her home. She invited them to charity dinners, to sit with her at church, and to her annual Memorial Day cookout. She talked Rudy Marshall, the first African American man to run for political office in Willow Row, into campaigning for a seat on the city council. And he won.

Celeste made sure of that.

She didn’t wear conservative suits and a hat to church every Sunday. When Emily Henderson suggested she might be too old to be wearing hemlines above the knee, my grandmother showed up at Daddy’s law school graduation in a miniskirt and black thigh boots. Mama says Aunt Virginia and Aunt Caroline fainted, but Aunt Beth secretly enjoyed every minute of it.

When Granddaddy died was the first time I ever saw Celeste cry. Not just the polite tears swiped from a cheek when a member of The Family we hardly know dies. These were tears of cold, clawing grief. The sight of them still lingers in my memory. I saw them only one other time. The day I packed my Mustang for Tennessee, she slipped a check for five thousand dollars into my hand. Those tears nearly had me unpacking, and fulfilling Daddy’s dream of his firstborn treading the campus of the University of South Carolina. I’d come home on weekends with the young man of Mama’s dreams, and live the life folks said I deserved whether I wanted it or not…

That wasn’t what Celeste wanted for me. I knew she was betting on me, so I got into that Mustang, and drove until the big house grew smaller and smaller behind me.

There were visits that grew less frequent as she got older, and didn’t much like to travel. And there were the rare times I’d come home out of sheer remorse. But, every Thursday evening my phone rang. We’d spend exactly an hour discussing what I thought to be a fairly ordinary life. Somehow Celeste never found me ordinary in any way. It was years before I realized what my grandmother found so fascinating about my life was the choices were mine. Good or bad, the choices were my own.

Most of them anyway.

I stop my Explorer in the driveway, waiting for the screen door to fly open. Of course it doesn’t, which is exactly why I can’t believe she thought I would want this. There are tire tracks all over the front lawn, and stacks of sheets of plywood in front of the four-car garage that was once a carriage house. It houses two Lincolns and an old beat up Ford truck, but Mama and Aunt Virginia insist on referring to it as the carriage house.

Ashton says while enjoying a good drunk once, Daddy admitted I was conceived in the carriage house. For no other reason, it is a carriage house to me. I did the math as soon as I was old enough to subtract. Mama was no blushing virgin on her wedding night either.

I decide the dock will be as good a place as any to get a glimpse of what in the world Celeste could have been thinking. In the backyard bright blue tarps are stretched over more stacks of wood, saw horses scattered here and there. The worn path to the greenhouse winds around withering orchids and tomato plants in old pots littering rickety tables lining a cement slab. Past a hedge of forsythia and a crumbling stonewall hardly visible beneath honeysuckle vines, the path leads to a dock and a pond with catfish big enough to mount and brag about.

The dock sways as I step onto it. I wonder briefly if it will hold. My brother, sister and I would fish here with chicken livers for the catfish, and fried bologna sandwiches and cherry cokes for us. Well, Ashton and I would fish, and Cassie would bitch about the mosquitoes.

And there under the willows dancing at the water’s edge, I believed Matthew Olsen when he said he would marry me no matter what Mama said. I thought I’d become a woman that hot summer night with the crickets singing and fat frogs croaking on the bank. It was seven weeks later I learned I’d become so much more.

Of course, Mama took care of that.

Kicking off my sneakers, I roll up the legs of my jeans to drop my feet into the cold, murky water. I gently press the envelope between my hands like a priceless jewel as minnows nibble my toes. I might as well get it over with. Nothing in this envelope can undo that big house being empty, but I like to pretend for a moment it can.

“Good God, Elizabeth, just get on with it.”

I freeze, the envelope fluttering to the rough, gray planks of the dock.

I refilled my prescription before I left Georgia, but was optimistic I wouldn’t need one until exactly an hour before supper. As I try to remember if I put the bottle of Xanax in my purse, I stare at the glimmer of her on the water. Now I know I’m hallucinating. Celeste would never sit on the dock in her best ivory negligee.

“It’s all right, honey. I suppose you’ve already had a hell of a day, so you just take a minute to get your wits about you.”

I can hear the water gurgle as she sticks her toes in. The feathered mules fall against my thigh as she drops them. “This cannot be happening,” I murmur.

“Damn, this water is cold,” she chuckles.

“I’m in mourning.” I close my eyes, and lay a hand over my stumbling heart. “This is nothing more than a manifestation of my grief.”

“Seeing a shrink every week has done you some good hasn’t it, Lizzie?” She tosses her silvery curls over one shoulder. “I never saw much point in it. It doesn’t take somebody with lots of degrees on the wall to tell me how screwed up we all are.”

“Oh, my God.” Opening my eyes, I press a fingertip to her cheek. “I can touch you.” I narrow one eye. “Did you stage your own death?” It’s not like I haven’t thought about it.

“I suspected life held no more surprises for me, honey. And it didn’t. But, death… Now there’s a surprise.” Celeste’s blue eyes sparkle as she lets out a throaty laugh.

“Did you go toward the light?” I ask lowly.

“Something like that.”

“Then why aren’t you in heaven?” My eyes widen as I clutch my heart again. “Don’t tell me you’re in hell. I knew it!” I exclaim triumphantly. “Willow Row is hell.”

“It’s not as simple as they say, sugar. I can’t be anymore specific, but it isn’t just about heaven, or hell.” She eyes the envelope between us. “You going to take a peek at that?”

“I don’t know.” I gnaw on a fingernail as I stare at the envelope.

“Want me to tell you what it says?” She cocks a painted on brow as if she’s only asked what I want for supper.

“You’re supposed to haunt Aunt Virginia, Celeste.” What a gift. I was sure I’d never hear her laugh again. “Okay, what does it say?” This should be good. She’ll give me the proof I need to later assure myself I did not see my dead grandmother.

“Let’s see.” She runs a fingertip over the envelope with a wicked smile. “First of all, it says I know Virginia is going to be madder than a wet hen. Then I go on to try to make you understand how important this is to me.”

“It’s important to you they draw and quarter me at dawn?” I drawl. “I don’t want your house, Celeste. I don’t want the pearls, or the china, and I certainly don’t want to be present when Mr. Calloway tells The Family that’s what you want.”

“How’s Richard doing?”

Her amusement vanishes. I see the same sorrow in her eyes I saw in his. “Go ask him yourself.”

“I wish I could.” Looking out over the lake, she pats my back.

“He’s sad. I didn’t realize the two of you were…”

“The two of us were what?”

“In love.”

“Richard was in love,” she corrects. “I was lonely. There was only your granddaddy for me, Lizzie.” Her face lights with another coy smile. “Now, let me tell you why I’ve put you in the most precarious of positions.”

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