Synopses & Reviews
When Manda Frank conceives eleven babies with the help of fertility treatments, she brings the world's attention to rural Three Chimneys, Virginia. As the news media descends on the town, even bringing presidential candidate Adams Brooke to Manda's hospital bedside, the residents of Three Chimneys celebrate before the cameras. When all eleven children are born alive, Pastor Leland Vaughn rejoices in his belief that the miraculous event will enliven his community.
Meanwhile, artisanal cheese-maker Margaret Prickett has devoted herself to campaigning for Brooke, who has promised to instate a sweeping amnesty for family farms that will erase the debt that threatens her own centuries-old farm. At home, tension swells as Margaret's daughter Polly, after suffering through her parents' messy divorce, finds her own rebellious urges expressed in the radical ideas of Mr. March, a young history teacher. At the same time, August Vaughn, Margaret's loyal farm hand, struggles with his feelings for Margaret, taking solace in being a living historian of Thomas Jefferson. As autumn progresses and the sickly Frank babies begin to die, all of Three Chimneys becomes infected with the same disquiet simmering in the Prickett household.
In an effort to heal his shaken flock, Pastor Vaughn encourages Margaret and August to recreate the Mammoth Cheese, a 1,235-pound wheel of Cheshire delivered to the newly inaugurated President Thomas Jefferson by his New England supporters. Margaret reluctantly agrees, and soon the whole town is involved in the new project. As Margaret plunges herself into first the Adams Brooke campaign and then the making of the giant cheese, she loses sight of the events unfolding in Polly's life. Polly's crush on Harvey March, her revolutionary-minded history teacher, gradually develops into a dangerous relationship. As the novel progresses, March's words and actions towards Polly become questionable and finally blatantly inappropriate and sinister, soon showing that Polly's suspicions of his affection for her aren't wishful thinking at all.
August Vaughn also begins to question his place in Margaret's life. For years, he harbored a love for her that kept him living at home with his parents and working as a laborer on her farm. Now that Margaret's marriage has ended, August admits his feelings for her, and Margaret, overwhelmed by her work on the farm and the increasingly threatening letters from the bank regarding foreclosure on her property, rebuffs him. August distances himself from the Prickett and Vaughn families, buying a piece of land and overseeing the construction of his own, small home.
August's parents are hurt by their only son's decision to leave home, especially his father Leland, who struggles with guilt from his involvement in the birth of the Frank Eleven. He begins to question the wisdom of his council in encouraging Manda to carry all eleven embryos to term. The first babies die and the rest suffer in the hospital and or at the new Frank home, which has been left half-finished by Polly's father's construction firm in the wake of dwindling interest in and charity for the Frank family. But even Leland doesn't understand Manda's suffering. A celebrity and town hero while pregnant, the deaths of her children have returned Manda to her status as the girl from the wrong side of the tracks. She miserably cares for the six implacable infants, babies with whom she has been unable to bond. As her life descends into increasing chaos, and her older daughter Rose suffers a terrible dog bite from Manda's untrained pack, Manda finds herself overcome by deep despair and even contemplates killing the babies and herself.
Finally, the cheese is complete. Leland, optimistic that all of Three Chimneys will benefit from Margaret's project, organizes the trip to Washington D.C. Polly's history class, under the supervision of Mr. March, joins the trip, as does a reluctant August, who despite his father's pleas, has refused to dress as Jefferson for the trip. The cheese has at this point become an ethically questionable endeavor, but Margaret finds herself unable to stop what she has begun. Brooke has used Margaret's family motto to get elected, and Margaret is dismayed by the commercial aspect her gift to Brooke has taken on-the cheese now sports corporate sponsorship and is trailed by the media. Margaret's feels even more defeated when a reporter accompanying the caravan tells her that Brooke's farm amnesty is sure to succumb to a compromise with congress. She also realizes her own feelings for August but is unable to bridge the distance that has grown between them.
As Margaret, Polly, August, Leland, and Mr. March travel towards Washington, the tensions threatening their families and all of Three Chimneys builds to a startling conclusion that forces everyone to face the gap between their intentions and their actions.
In the vivid world of The Mammoth Cheese, the present is immersed in the ppppppast and the meaning of community is elusive. As the characters struggle to understand their own debts to parents, friends, and neighbors, they learn to assert their independence.
"Like the 1,200-pound cheese of the title, Sheri Holman's novel is a big, ambitious enterprise. Unlike many such enterprises...it possesses, page by page, or bite by bite if you prefer, an intense, refined and lingering flavor." Richard Eder, The New York Times
"Holman deftly weaves these stories together, as well as a series of subplots, some of which are profoundly moving....Holman has fashioned a tale that is poignant and powerful and, like an award-winning cheese, surprisingly complex." Chris Bohjalian, The Washington Post Book World
"[The Mammoth Cheese] dazzles with its combination of history, religion, political satire and tragedy. Every character here is a delicately nuanced, vivid creation." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
"Holman virtuosically entangles two arresting plotlines....Part Jon Hassler, part Robert Altman film and all-around terrific." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"The story line is droll, but the book is also tough, sad and surprisingly sweet." Jennifer Reese, The New York Times Book Review
"A deft account of the contradictions of small-town life." Time Out New York
"With these wonderfully inventive, charmingly flawed characters, Holman pierces one shallow vanity of modern society after the other. Highly recommended." Library Journal
"This big but nimble novel...is absolutely compelling in its swift satire, yet readers will also respond to its deep sympathies for 'well-foibled' individuals....Human nature exposed at its rawest and most entertaining." Brad Hooper, Booklist
"Sheri Holman...catches the flavor of small-town America in this story of the rural South....There are many pleasures in this book: its vivid characters, delineations of cheese and cheesemaking, and its evocation of the South." Lois D. Atwood, Providence Journal
"Holman's novel is brilliant, the characters deeply rendered, the philosophic underpinning astute, the touch sure....It's that sharp bite of cynicism about human nature that gives Holman's novel its tang..." Barbara Sjoholm, Seattle Times
"[H]ampered by occasionally flat prose and a slightly sentimental tone....Too often, the novel's edge is dulled by Holman's warm embrace of her characters, most of whom are portrayed as flawed but ultimately good and kindly folk." Alec MacGillis, Baltimore Sun
"[G]rown-up, sophisticated, sometimes humorous....Sheri Holman performs a nearly faultless balancing act between reality and satire." Sharon Barrett, Chicago Sun-Times
"Mounting deficits are certainly a topic of current political concern and it is interesting to see the debate play out on a fictional scale. It is a merit that outweighs some flatness of character and plays well in a nicely readable tale." Robin Vidimos, The Denver Post
"[A] marvelous, entertaining novel with characters whose lives are as unabashedly untidy as America itself." Robert Weibezahl, BookPage.com
"[A]mbitious and at times slightly unwieldy....Holman's ability to constantly create sharply turned phrases, and the honestly earned humor that she instills in the story, help balance the tragic elements and make this a memorable modern pastoral fable." David Hellman, San Francisco Chronicle
"The last 40 pages of this novel somewhat redeem the first 400, but the characters' troubles are wrapped up rather tidily. It's too bad, for Holman is an impressive writer. But her prodigious talents seem wasted on this book." Carol Cain Farrington, Miami Herald
"Holman weaves all these stories together so well that it takes only a few chapters for the reader to feel like a native of Three Chimneys. After that, The Mammoth Cheese moves quickly and effortlessly toward its surprising and memorable climax." Jay Pawlowski, Rocky Mountain News
"[An] engaging multidimensional tale....Holman's latest imaginative sprawl of a novel explores quintessential American themes independence, patriotism and politics to great tragi-comic effect." Anita Shreve, Book Magazine
Acclaimed best-selling author Sheri Holman's third novel, The Mammoth Cheese
, has been hailed as "stunning...a Great American Novel par excellence" by Newsday
and by the New York Times Book Review
as "lovely, disarming...tough, sad and surprisingly sweet." An Our Town
for our times, The Mammoth Cheese
is beautifully crafted and driven by warm, vibrant characters as it follows the residents of rural Three Chimneys, Virginia, on their journey to re-create the original Thomas Jefferson-era, 1,235-pound "Mammoth Cheese."
As the book opens, the town is joyously celebrating the birth of the Frank Eleven (eleven babies simultaneously born to Manda and James Frank after fertility treatments) and enjoying the thrill of notoriety as reform-minded presidential hopeful Adams Brooke visits the newborns. But as autumn progresses and the babies weaken, the community seeks to redeem itself through the making and transporting of a symbolic Mammoth Cheese to Washington, as a gift for the newly elected President Brooke. The cheese is the brainchild of August Vaughn, a farmhand by day and a President Jefferson impersonator by night, and the creation of Margaret Prickett, a single mother and cheese maker trying to save her century-old family farm. As Margaret slips deeper into debt and desperation, her thirteen-year-old daughter, Polly, slides closer to an inappropriate relationship with her radical, attentive history teacher. Sheri Holman seamlessly weaves together the lives of Three Chimneys, delving into her characters' inescapable family histories as they grapple with religion, divorce, politics, and unrequited love.
The Mammoth Cheese is a triumphant exploration of the burdens and joys of rural America and the debts we owe to history, our parents, and ourselves.
With The Mammoth Cheese, Holman delivers a sharp, contemporary story steeped in history that will captivate a new audience while gratifying readers of her acclaimed earlier work, The Dress Lodger. Beautifully crafted and driven by warm, vibrant characters, The Mammoth Cheese follows the residents of rural Three Chimneys, Virginia, on their historic journey to re-create the making of the original Thomas Jefferson-era, 1,235-pound "Mammoth Cheese."
Review A Day
"The Mammoth Cheese
teeters on the edge of parody from time to time, but Holman keeps all these wonderful characters including the cows grounded in her deeper themes about the debt one generation owes another and the lust for independence. Yes, colonies rebel and the ones we want most to protect reject our care as tyranny, but Holman knows that good parents can love their children and still let them have their whey." Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor
(read the entire CSM review