Book Reviews | February 2011 | Deb Burst

Feel the Love, Stealing Magnolias' love affair for New Orleans

Inside the graceful pages of Stealing Magnolias: Tales from a New Orleans Courtyard, Debra Shriver shares her love affair for New Orleans and her French Quarter home. The poetic journey captures the city's lusty European flair with the whimsical memories of Mardi Gras, the deep-seated traditions of Southern ambitions, and the grand pursuits of dining and imbibing.

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Shriver, Vice President with Hearst Business Publications, describes it as Coup de Foudre, love at first sight for a city, home, and its people. But soon after finding the home came the darkest hours of post-Katrina mayhem. A market void of skilled craftsman, she meets Hal, owner of an antique store and gifted decorator. He transformed the home's dank interior into a carousel of color.

More than a decorating project, the home bore testament to a town mirrored by juxtapositions. A three story Greek Revival design boasts a symmetry of balance in double parlors, twin fireplaces and matching chandeliers. The downstairs brings contrasting colors in light and shadows and opposing textures of silk and linens while the upper level nods recurring themes of the Big Easy with a sitting room for reading and watching old movies.

The home captures the couple's passion for music, Debra and her husband, Jerry Shriver, music critic for USA Today, crafted a shrine with jazz and gospel monarchs Ella Fitzgerald and New Orleans native Mahalia Jackson. Queen Mahalia holds court in the dining room in a silkscreen painting while Ella is immortalized in an upstairs landing dubbed the "Ella altar." It is there, Debra confesses, fledging jazz artists from the New Orleans Creative Arts School play unseen during cocktail parties and candlelight suppers. 

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Southern traditions gracefully unfold in a lavish display of artwork that reveals the fabled culture of New Orleans. Debra's sensual dialog captures the essence of daily nuances as she sits outside in the brick courtyard reading the newspaper aroused by the fragrance of her grandmother's gardenias and the cadence of cooing doves.

One chapter details the lovely monogram living large in architecture, linens, and stationary with tips on how to properly display the code of honor. And of course the food rituals idolized by epicureans who crave everything from opulent dining to seafood boils both hosted by equally worshipped cocktails. Recipes of Kumquat Champagne Cocktails, oyster stew, crab pots de crème, and strawberry shortcake biscuits join Debra's own recipe for staying cool with a perfumed elixir.
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The saga continues as the remaining chapters course through the city's rich ancestry born from the seeds of Paris and heady influence of the French, along with the Spanish, Africans and Caribbean Islands. She parades through the neighborhoods introducing the sights, sounds and smells of New Orleans with a lesson on the proper pronunciation of street names: Burgundy (Burr-GUN-Dee), Carondelet (Caron-doe-LET) and the most challenging, Tchoupitoulas (Chop-a-TOO-lis).  It's a walking town past the Café du Monde, the oldest coffee establishment in America, the open air French Market, and Parisian-style bistros sprinkled all along the river from Bywater to Audubon Park.

Tiny love notes dot the pages with quotes from New Orleans icons and those who swoon for her affection, Ella Brennan, Wynton Marsalis, George Rodrigue, James Carville, Anne Rice, Dave Matthews and more, all testimonials that nurture the magic and the mystique.

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Enlightened by the spirits of Voodoo, Debra shares her personal experience with a nearby voodoo shop, and then one of Debra's most moving passages. She examines the stoic beauty and stark contrast between the living and the dearly departed inside the New Orleans cemeteries, what she calls, "the small, silent pathways of the Cities of the Dead." Faceless names and living legends reduced to a single message scribed on rows of vaulted chambers. And her endearing symbolism of flowers, "a daisy for youth and innocence, a lily for a virgin, a calla variety for a departed wife, a morning glory for an absent sibling. There are pansies for remembrance and poppies for eternal sleep. Broken tree trunks evoke an early passing and weeping willows whisper eternal sorrow and mourning."

As a parting gift, Debra shares her communal address book, a list of favorite shops & museums, historic homes, hotels, restaurants, cocktails, books, and twelve reasons to return to New Orleans again and again. Stealing Magnolias tugs the heart like an old lover as her seductive pages cast a blissful spell of longing for a city filled with fantasies.  

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