Gervais Hagerty wholeheartedly embraces her Charleston roots in her debut novel, “In Polite Company.” If you’ve never been to South Carolina, Hagerty’s novel offers a firsthand exposé of the city, its inhabitants, and the outdated social practices of its high society. Hagerty throws readers into a dazzling world of country clubs, debutante balls, and family politics. By the narrative’s conclusion, readers are well-acquainted with local Charleston culture and lingo like “from off,” Lowcountry summer supper,” or “Charleston single.”
The novel follows Simons, a young woman concerned with her fading romance, stagnant career as a news producer, and her grandmother’s declining health. Her experience is shaped by the restrictions of living among upper-class Charlestonians who value civility and conformity above all else. Always “in polite company,” Simons is forced to suppress her personality and uphold her elite family’s reputation.
Hagerty is able to create an intimate experience with language that appeals to the senses and cinematically crafts Simons’ surroundings. Readers can feel the chilled water of the ocean when Simons goes surfing, marvel at the glow of bioluminescent algae, and watch the fog rise over the shoreline at sunrise.
Sometimes, however, the book reads more like a travel guide than a novel. Chapters often begin with lists of the best beaches for surfing, the many islands that border Edisto, or the busiest streets in downtown Charleston. These lists don’t do much to advance the narrative or set the scene, unlike the more nuanced details that Hagerty incorporates about everyday living in South Carolina.
The most powerful and well-written moments of “In Polite Company” are its depictions of grief. Anyone who’s lost a friend, family member, or beloved pet, can empathize with the narrator’s struggle to cope with the loss of her grandmother, Laudie. Hagerty’s funeral and burial scenes are heartbreakingly vivid, from the sight of an embalmed corpse in an open casket to the sound of dirt being shoveled over a fresh grave.
As tragic as these losses are, Hagerty also reminds us of the organic and peaceful nature of the life cycle. She cleverly parallels the declining health of Laudie with the decay of her garden. At every visit, Simons finds that more flowers have died until the plot is left empty. And yet, there is beauty and consolation in this natural process, a reminder that some things are simply out of our control.
Where the novel falls short is in its feminist message. The narrator had the potential to be an empowered icon. Through Simons’ internal and external dialogue, Hagerty raises important questions about the persistence of gender inequality in the household, the workplace, and in boys’ clubs like Battery Hall, an exclusive country club. Simons is resistant to the traditional roles of mother and housewife, and she voices her desires to pave a path away from outdated expectations.
Unfortunately, Hagerty steers Simons away from these feminist ideals by making her boy crazy. Simons is perpetually concerned with finding a romantic partner, never given a moment to exist on her own. Most of her conversations and conflicts with friends and family revolve around the men in her life. The novel fares poorly on the Bechdel Test — a measure of the representation of women in fiction that asks whether a work features at least two women talking each other about something other than a man.
Every time Simons resolves to venture off on her own, the next page introduces a new love interest. Any excitement raised about Simons finally finding herself disappears when she is sent into the arms of a new lover. Romance should not be the end-all be-all of a successful character arc. To quote from Louisa May Alcott’s “Rose in Bloom,” “I’m sick of being told that [love] is all a woman is fit for!”
Hagerty’s debut excels in some areas and disappoints in others. Her portrayal of grief is relatable and poetic, and her intricate accounts of life in Charleston can make anyone feel like a local. If only her main character were not so obsessed with finding a partner, the narrative would better convey the feminist sentiments that Hagerty tries to get across. At the end of the day, Hagerty’s first novel is an entertaining read, underscored by a heartwarming piece of advice from Laudie that frequently resurfaces: “Be brave.”
—Staff writer Nina M. Foster can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.