The Whole Town's Talking 
By Fannie Flagg
Random House.
432 pp. $28.

Reviewed by Connie Ogle

nolead ends 'I think most people are confused about life, because if it's not one thing or the other, it's two things going on at the same time," Fannie Flagg writes in The Whole Town's Talking, her latest novel. "Life is both sad and happy, simple and complex, all at the same time."

Which means the only logical course of action is to love your neighbors and have yourself a good time. Eat two, maybe even three, helpings of Edna Childress' apple pie. Rescue a bunch of kittens (kittens always make you feel better). Dress up like the Easter Bunny if you've a mind to. Give everybody you know a jar of the best fig preserves they will ever taste, even if they happen to be famous robbers on their way into town to ply their trade at your local bank.

This novel is a chatty companion to Flagg's previous novel set in the delightful Elmwood Springs, Mo. They include Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!, Standing in the Rainbow, and Can't Wait to Get to Heaven.

Instead of concentrating on one particular family or story, though, Flagg takes the long view, offering a history starting with the town's origins (thanks to sturdy Swedish immigrant Lordor Nordstrom, who begat a dairy dynasty when he wrote away for and married a mail-order bride). The story starts with the founding of the town in 1889 and runs to the present, even a little bit beyond. In between, people get married and have kids. A few of the youngsters try to climb the water tower. Their elders enjoy the early-bird special at the Main Street Cafe. People learn to tap dance, watch movies, and go off to war.

They also die, ending up at Still Meadows Cemetery (established 1889). What happens to them when they finally get there is a surprise. As in Can't Wait to Get to Heaven, Flagg envisions a different sort of afterlife, cozy and unexpectedly satisfying.

That's really all there is by way of story. What drives The Whole Town's Talking isn't plot but nostalgia and Flagg's gentle wit. It's a pleasant, amusing bedtime story for grown-ups, with short chapters that propel you through the decades, almost all of them leaving you with a smile. Flagg, best known for Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, touches briefly on dark topics - one of the town's young men never makes it home from World War II, and a beloved young woman marries a felonious cad. There might even have been a murder or two.

But overall, The Whole Town's Talking is warm and inviting. Flagg's Elmwood Springs novels are comfort reads of the best kind: warm and engaging without flash or fuss.

This review originally appeared in the Miami Herald.