The novel jumps between two plot lines, the first set in the present day (late 80s), following Evelyn Couch, a middle aged housewife who is unhappily married , struggling to find happiness through compulsive eating and self-help programs. Evelyn’s self-esteem is at its lowest when she accompanies her husband to visit his abrasive elderly aunt. It’s during one of these visits to the nursing home that she involuntarily befriends an inpatient who begins to share her life story with Evelyn- taking us back in time to the 1920s and the Whistle stop cafe, Alabama.
This sub-plot is really the heart of the novel, and revolves around the love story of Idgie, a prank-pulling tomboy, and Ruth, a sweet country girl who is actually engaged to Idgie’s older brother Buddy.
The chapters of the novel take us back and forth between the tragedy and romance of Whistle stop and the adventures of Evelyn in the 80s, who inspired by the story begins to change her life. Flagg balances the climaxes between the two plots with perfect measure, and the rather harsh life in 20s dust-bowl American era is softened by the tone of recollection from our aged narrator.
I wasn’t sure if I would like this novel, I saw the movie years ago and remembered it to be quite dramatic and emotionally charged, not the kind of story I would usually read. But the book actually had a lot more substance; I was surprised by how much more gay content it had than the film (as well as her relationship with Ruth, Idgie has another female lover). Considering Flagg wrote the screenplay, it’s disappointing that this fundamental theme of homosexuality was sterilised for cinema.
Still, it was refreshing to read a love story between two women without the theme of persecution and inequality- Ruth & Idgie live a respectful life, unchallenged by peers or family as a same-sex couple. Fried green tomatoes actually won an award from GLAAD- the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which is pretty cool considering it also spent 36 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.