|Dr Kathy Carpenter, who is 44 when we first meet her, is the narrator throughout. She had joined a convent at the age of 17 and stayed there for 12 years. As a psychologist had told her on her entry, "I would have little difficulty with the vows of poverty and chastity but the vow of obedience would be a problem for me." The nuns had particularly welcomed her as she was the only black woman there so would "validate the community as open and non-discriminatory". But in the end she finally realised that, although she had valued convent life, she "didn't connect" and asked for permission to be released from her vows. Then, almost 10 years before we meet her, she had entered into a happy marriage with Jon, a white university provost.
She says she has an intense character and a "life-as-a-learning-laboratory stance that worked well while I was in the convent but did not always serve me well in life beyond convent walls". She had been "a straight-A student throughout my educational experience" and had wanted to be a psychologist from the age of 10. Even at the convent she had "managed to get to junior year in college with enough credits to complete a psychology major". Like the author, she subsequently earned a doctorate and was intent on becoming a successful psychologist as well as a "best-selling author and local TV personality". Although small in stature, she makes a determined investigator.
Dr Deborah Plummer Bussey, the daughter of immigrant parents, grew up in an inner city Cleveland working-class black neighborhood. After high school she went on to spend 13 years as a nun living in a largely white religious community. She went on to study at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in New England. She holds a Master of Education degree in community consultation and a doctorate in psychology.
She later developed a career as psychologist and human resources professional with expertise in diversity management and organizational development. She had experience of working as a chief diversity officer, university professor, director of a graduate degree program, and a staff psychologist before founding D.L. Plummer & Associates, a consulting firm specializing in diversity management and organizational development.
After publishing academic articles and two non-fiction titles including Racing Across the Lines: Changing Race Relationships Through Friendships, she turned to fiction with They Still Call Me Sister (reviewed below) that was to be the first of a series. She says that they were inspired by her own experiences as a nun and as a psychologist. Indeed she has much in common with her creation Dr Kathy Carpenter (also a psychologist and ex-nun), both of them being a little neurotic and particularly fond of worrying, although Kathy, she says, is more open to self-doubt, is more naive and far less of a rebellious Catholic than her author.
She is also a regularly featured blogger for Huffington Post and a guest commentator for local and national television news programs.
They Still Call Me Sister (2011)
They Still Call Me Sister tells how former nun and successful psychologist Kathy Carpenter embarks on detective work when Chanelle, a patient she had known from years back, is found dead and it ís claimed to be a suicide. Enlisting the help of her gregarious bouncy sister Tina in Atlanta who had learnt how to be a detective by watching TV series and who took her on an eventful journey via gay clubs (with characters like the transvestite who was pleased to call him(her)self Dickhole), she tracks down a possible suspect known as Brain Fag about whom little was known except that he had a panty fetish. (Incidentally the author based Tina on one of her own sisters - who had long ago given her the nickname of Sister Nun). Kathy becomes more and more convinced that Chanelle had been murdered. As she gets closer to the truth, political intrigue begins to surround her, and her own life is endangered.
It is all written in a lively humorous style that makes it fun to read, as when we are told that "Nuns invented leg warmers as a form of birth control for Catholic girls. If you wore those ugly gray and red plaid pleated skirts that had to touch the knee in the era of miniskirts and the winter accessories that completed the ensemble were thick, bulky, knit gray legwarmers worn in a cast-like manner around your legs, no boy in his right mind would want to have sex with you." I liked too the nun whose language was littered with expletives: her father "was once a lorry driver, and she claimed that her obscenity-littered language was in her blood and that she was unable to stop swearing. She had convinced a few older nuns that she suffered from Tourette's syndrome and was on medication." It was she who had tottered back drunk from a staff party after slipping vodka into the punch.
Unfortunately, though, it all jumps around so much in time (from 1977 to 2005 to 1990 to 2004 to 1990 to 2005 to 1984 to 1981 to 2005 to 1986 to 2005 to 1984 etc) that it gets a little confusing, and not all the flashbacks (such as the one describing how Kathy had improved on the nuns' unhygienic washing-up methods by pretending to be ill and then persuading their doctor to pay for a commercial dishwashing machine) are really very relevant even if they are entertaining. But it is written with such an understanding of people and their motives, that it holds the interest throughout. It presents a world in which the outsiders are the white people, although Kathy herself, married as she is to a white man, is all for integration and increased understanding. It gives an interesting insight too into her work as a psychologist, as when a girl tells Kathy that she liked her school classes. Kathy comments, "I'm alert now.There is something wrong when teens start out by saying they like their classes. It generally means that something is not right with peer relationships or on the home front."
Reading is not made any easier, though, by little footnotes telling the reader, "5 minutes left in chapter" or "2 hrs and 4 mins left in book".
The author explains at the end that "Although the personalities of the characters are inspired by my own family and friends, the plot line was developed out of twisting facts that I experienced ... and imagining therapy sessions that I might have had with my patients if they were as exciting as the patients in this novel (they never were and never are.)"
The Family that Stays Together (2013)
The Family that Stays Together describes how 44-year-old ex-nun and practising psychologist Dr Kathy Carpenter again joins forces with her gregarious sister Tina ("fifty years young, going on for twenty-five"), this time to protect Jessica, a family friend and television celebrity who has been accused of murdering her ex-fiance. Kathy is faced with her usual challenge of how to bring to light something she finds out in her clinical practice without breaking confidentiality, but the two amateur sleuths are determined to uncover the truth.
It is written in a gently amusing sort of way and Tina is certainly a lively character, whose "houndstooth jacket and lace blouse were a surprise contrast with the mini skirt but no surprise for Tina's playful spirit that always expressed itself in her distinctive fashion style." She even happily manages to break into a men's locker room in her search for evidence. This is quite entertaining even if rather implausible. And the relationship between the two sisters is convincingly handled, although they seem remarkably childish for their age as when Tina tries to persuade Kathy to swear more fluently: "Hearing me say 'do do balls' instead of simply saying shit annoyed her. We went many rounds of verbal tennis with her as my coach for how to curse like an adult. 'Do do balls.' 'Shit.' 'Do do balls.' It's shit.' 'No, it's do do balls to me." Peals of laughter descending between us."
Other characters are less plausible, including Joy, the swearing ex-nun, who goes on to do even more unlikely things, and Trentham the determinedly gay young man who had been (unsuccessfully) subjected to "gay reveral therapy", and Randy, Kathy's friend, the ever helpful local clergyman. Kathy, however, has her insights as when she comments, "Men had a way of simplifying issues like relationships that were really complex and taking things that were simple like managing household chores and making them complex."
Unfortunately, however, the basic plot is a weak one and fails to hold the interest throughout. Quite simply, not a lot happens, although there's a great deal of rather uninteresting talk (especially in counselling sessions) and conjecture - and the author's idiosyncracies start to irritate. There seems no good reason why there should be a chapter 2B, for example, and the frequent references to current TV shows, such as Law and Order, soon grow distinctly tedious. Occasionally chapters are written by Tina instead of Kathy, and this adds to the general sense of confusion. It also leads to quite unnecessary repetitions when exactly the same words are used to describe conversations that we've already heard. Both sisters must have quite remarkable photographic memories! If they had remembered things very differently, there might have been some point in it. It gives the book a distinctly self-published air.
There are interviews with the author on the Writers and Authors site and on the CMashReads blog.
Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!
Return to CONTENTS LIST