With In Polite Company, she joins the coterie of local women novelists writing beach-worthy reads
With her debut novel, Gervais Hagerty joins local authors writing beach-worthy reads.
“Life gets messy when our hearts don’t feel like they’re in the right place,” says the wise Laudie Middleton, maverick matriarch of the Smythe Middleton clan, as she counsels her granddaughter. Simons Smythe is the sassy, smart, and highly likable 20-something protagonist of Gervais Hagerty’s debut novel, whose seemingly charmed Charleston life is indeed a bit of a mess.
Hagerty’s In Polite Company (William Morrow, August 2021) follows Simons as she tries to get her heart in the right place. When we meet her, she’s a local TV news producer stuck writing predictable stories and engaged to Trip, a budding lawyer and fellow UNC-Chapel Hill grad who checks all the boxes for “perfectly acceptable Southern husband.” According to Simons’ mom and her two sisters, the only remaining questions are: is the William Aiken House available for the reception, and when do they go bridal gown shopping? The bigger question for Simons is the one she realizes her beloved Laudie once shared: is this all there is? Am I settling for “acceptable” when my heart wants more?
The story is a coming-of-age tale anchored around the age-old conflict of expectation and tradition versus a rambunctious spirit and the pull of thwarted desire, all set against a Holy City backdrop as real and tangled as the Unitarian churchyard.
In Polite Company is like a fabulous garden party fully stocked with a big crystal bowl of punch, Mrs. Hamby’s (aka “Mrs. Harley’s”) goodies, and other sundry, occasionally sordid, Charlestonesque references. It’s all here, from a history of joggling boards to the mating habits of fiddler crabs to surf etiquette on Folly, but Hagerty slips it in adroitly. Her characters have depth and nuance; the occasionally risqué dialogue rings delightfully true; and Charleston’s many challenges—overdevelopment, flooding, lack of alternate transportation—are laid bare.
With In Polite Company, Hagerty joins the established fine company of Lowcountry-based women writers delivering light, fun, beach-worthy reads. But with youth and sass on her side, not to mention tight, savvy prose, Hagerty claims her own territory. Her novel offers an insider’s look at Charleston seen through fresh, sparkly eyes. Hagerty grew up South of Broad; she did the cotillion thing and has been to her share of debutante parties and Hibernian galas. When she writes about lunches at the Yacht Club (“Battery Hall”) and swimming off the dock on Edisto, she does so with authority, nuance, and a gift for killer detail. Hagerty intuits the good and bad of Charleston tradition and culture. “This is what we do,” explains her main character—and this deep knowledge and even deeper respect of tradition gives Hagerty credibility as she calls out the absurdly antiquated patriarchal mores and old boys’ club mentality that linger.
Full disclosure, I know the author and her family. I’ve written a profile of her father, the artist and surgeon Duke Hagerty, for this magazine, and ages ago, took a writing seminar by her mother, poet and essayist Barbara. My daughter occasionally babysits for her nieces and nephews, and I’ve given my nieces gifts of jewelry made by her sister Hart. (Creativity runs deep in Hagertyville.)
That’s kind of how Charleston is, and how it reads in Hagerty’s novel—a small town made richer by crisscrossed connections. I may not be totally unbiased, but I am honest, and grateful for a budding novelist and fellow writer who boldly presents Charleston in all her finery and her flaws.