WE ALL HAVE heroes, and we all have places in our minds where they reside. For 28-year-old Grace Stewart, the self-deprecating siren of Nancy Lemann's newest novel, this imaginary place is called The Fiery Pantheon, an assembly of "very old white-haired gents" who embody all the maxims and ideals of the Old South, where Grace was reared. It is against this pantheon full of "decrepit, therefore honorable" men that Grace judges the inhabitants in her own world.
The Fiery Pantheon opens in an old-fashioned Virginian resort, and it isn't until the 10th chapter and numerous references to the modern-day movie icon, James Bond, that it becomes evident the novel is set in the present. The Stewart family's more ancient members still carry smelling salts for brisk waltzes, sit "supine in rocking chairs," and contemplate daughter Grace's engagement to a gent who's always detained by ailing Alabama relatives and a devotion to his dog. This until the entrance of Walter, a young outsider "at odds with the genteel tenor of the old hotel" who is taking a break from his fast-paced life as a Merrill Lynch executive. Soon, he too is wooing Grace while trying, unsuccessfully, to become a member of the esteemed Fiery Pantheon.
Lemann writes this breezy, predictable love story in a series of clipped, dead-pan sentences that reveal her characters' campy wit: "This Fiery Pantheon. Is there a Warm Pantheon? 'Cause the Fiery Pantheon must be getting pretty crowded. They're going to need crowd control in the Fiery Pantheon." Though hardly challenging stuff, Lemann's novel is, as shown above, an amusing character study, revealing its small truths and insights at a pace much like that of a traditional Confederate reel.