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Two Women Find Love in a Quirky Southern Town in “Love and Hot Chicken”

When I first read the title Love and Hot Chicken, I was intrigued. It’s pretty straightforward, but there had to be more to Mary Liza Hartong’s debut novel than meets the eye, and luckily there is. Love and hot chicken are definitely both part of the novel, but so are grief, family (both family of origin and found family), discovery of self, and how we always carry where we’re from with us.

PJ Spoon has returned to her hometown of Pennywhistle, Tennessee after her beloved father’s death shortly before the start of the story. PJ’s grief is still very present, but she tries to act as if it’s not. If it wasn’t, she wouldn’t still be in Pennywhistle in the first place. Sure, her mom is compulsively baking pies and storing her dad’s ashes in a Mr. Potato Head, but she’s learning to move forward. PJ can’t even think about returning to Nashville, the city she’s made home, to finish her Ph.D. If she does, she has to finally accept her dad isn’t coming back. So she continues to dodge her mother’s questions about school and ignore her advisor’s many messages, throwing herself back into small-town living. There’s plenty to keep her busy. Her mom needs her help abolishing the town’s tax on menstrual products, and her best friend Lee Ray needs his gay bestie closer.

Love and Hot Chicken is about PJ, but it’s just as much about Pennywhistle. The tiny town is almost a stereotypical small Southern town, but that’s what makes it so endearing. One of my favorite kinds of old TV shows were the ones with small country towns, like Petticoat Junction or Green Acres. Pennywhistle absolutely feels like the kind of small town that would be a 1960s sitcom. There is a never-ending cast of wacky townspeople making up the fabric of the town, and it’s such a delight. I really love a book where the setting is like its own character, which is one of the reasons this story works so well. As you get to know the town, you can better understand why it’s so comforting for PJ to stick around. Pennywhistle is her safe harbor, and even though they say you can’t go home again, it’s the kind of place that will let you back in with open arms. Hartong’s rich descriptions of the town paint such a vivid picture of the town; I really could picture it without even having to close my eyes. If I wasn’t such a city girl, and it was a real town, I’d want to spend a week there just hanging out with everyone.

PJ works as the cook at the Chickie Shak, a small chain of restaurants across the South (and New Jersey). It’s where the titular hot chicken comes from. The literal shack is like your typical small town greasy spoon: It’s the place everyone goes at some point. Customers are so regular that their regular order is waiting for them before they can get to the counter. Chickie Shak is small, so it’s just PJ and with her two co-workers: sharp edged cashier Linda and mysterious newcomer waitress Boof. The three women are shocked when one day, Chickie Shak CEO Mr. Puddin shows up out of the blue with a camera crew and announces all Chickie Shack employees are to participate in a mandatory pageant, complete with beauty and talent competitions. The winner gets a million dollars and a lifetime supply of Chickie Shak. Instantly, the three women are acting as competition, even though the only one treating it that way is Linda (she even begins plucking her mole hair and wearing acrylic nails). PJ and Boof are indifferent to the whole pageant thing, but it is an excuse for them to get to know each other better.

Boof gave up life in Nashville too, except she walked away from a burgeoning songwriting career. As soon as she meets PJ, Boof wants to get to know her better. PJ, of course, is still too busy mourning to make any connections, putting her off with a series of ridiculous excuses for not hanging out. But of course, that only works for so long before PJ is intrigued by the gorgeous redhead. Slowly, PJ and Boof begin to connect through their love of country music, making up songs as they walk to the bus stop. (They do eventually reveal what their nicknames stand for, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise.) As they take their time getting to know each other, Boof reveals she moved to Pennywhistle to find the mother who gave her up for adoption. Aside from wanting to know where she came from, and who she got her “cute little ears” from, Boof feels like finding that piece of the puzzle will make her a better songwriter. It’s hard to write a country song that tells a story if your story has too many holes.

The slow burn relationship between PJ and Boof is just as delicious as a piece of hot chicken. Hartong carefully walks the line with them over and over, taking them as close to romance as possible before yanking them back again. It’s never a question of will they/won’t they, but more of a ‘just kiss already’ kind of slow burn. Normally, it would stress me out, but I knew I had to wait for them to get out of their own way. Well, more so PJ than Boof.

PJ’s grief is always bubbling right under the surface. It’s almost as if she’s wearing it like a security blanket to keep herself safe from actually confronting her father’s death. They were so close that she truly cannot fathom what her life will look like without him around. So much so that she can still see and feel him around her. The way Hartong gives space to that grief is really lovely — no one ever seems to shame PJ for the complexities of her grief. If anything, they try to encourage her to take her time sorting out her feelings, reminding her she doesn’t have to do it all on her own. Hartong also shows the way grieving isn’t linear, allowing PJ to make her way through her feelings in her own way.

Family, both the family that makes you and the one you make for yourself, is a big theme of Love and Hot Chicken. PJ and her mom are incredibly close, and I love their relationship. Her mom is a hoot in the best way, always busy fighting for some cause or another. I also love that PJ has a gay best friend. Lee Ray does sweet things like lead a group for old people who likes boating. Boof is looking for her family, and through that, she creates a new one with PJ and the friends she makes in Pennywhistle. Plus, when you have a small town where everyone knows everyone, you can feel like they’re all one big family who fight and look out for each other and get on each other’s nerves but drop everything to show each other some love. It’s really heartwarming.

Love and Hot Chicken is the exact kind of romance book I love. It’s layered and complex, but you don’t even realize all of that until you’re finished. PJ goes on a journey in this story that takes her from a very small version of herself to the fullest version of herself. She learns love takes on many forms, and running from them is like running away from yourself. But if you let yourself go, you can always come back home.


Love and Hot Chicken by Mary Liza Hartong is out now.

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Sa'iyda Shabazz

Sa'iyda is a writer and mom who lives in LA with her partner, son and 3 adorable, albeit very extra animals. She has yet to meet a chocolate chip cookie she doesn't like, spends her free time (lol) reading as many queer romances as she can, and has spent the better part of her life obsessed with late 90s pop culture.

Sa'iyda has written 128 articles for us.

2 Comments

  1. This book sounds great! I appreciate that Autostraddle covers a lot of books, but as a queer rom com fan I particularly appreciate your reviews, and have immediately gotten books from the library after you suggest them.

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