Bookshelf: Hit the road with ‘The Mostly True Story of Tanner & Louise’

Credit: Berkley

Credit: Berkley

Colleen Oakley’s hilarious new book was inspired by ‘Thelma & Louise.’

One of my all-time favorite storytelling genres in both books and film is the road trip. You put a couple of characters together in close quarters and send them on a journey. Along the way, they have unexpected encounters and harrowing mishaps, and in the process, they develop a bond and learn some life lessons. Think John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” or the movies “The Wizard of Oz” and “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”

Perhaps one of the most universally beloved road trip stories is the 1991 movie “Thelma & Louise.” Who didn’t love watching Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis peeling around the West in a Thunderbird convertible, flexing their girl power muscles by putting boorish men in their places and frolicking with Brad Pitt? It’s a favorite of Atlanta author Colleen Oakley’s and the inspiration, in part, for her delightfully entertaining new novel.

“The Mostly True Story of Tanner & Louise” (Berkley, $27) is a rollicking page-turner about an intergenerational friendship between an elderly grandmother with a secret past and her reluctant, young caretaker, who find themselves on the lam in a mint green Jaguar XKE.

Louise is an 84-year-old widow happily set in her ways, living an independent life, hours away from her grown children. She spends her time writing thank you notes and letters of condolence, admiring the physique of her hot handyman, brandishing an unloaded gun at her annoying neighbor and drinking two fingers of Finlandia vodka every day at 5 p.m. But when she breaks a hip, she’s forced to hire a live-in caretaker during her recovery.

Tanner Quimby is a 21-year-old soccer player who’s lost her scholarship to Northwestern after breaking her leg in a freak accident. She’s been moping in her mother’s basement ever since, wearing the same old sweats, sleeping late and playing video games for hours on end. Her mother eventually demands Tanner move out and arranges for her to work for Louise.

Cranky and demoralized by the indignities of aging, Louise is incensed by her children who talk to her “as though they were degreed medical professionals and she had not passed the second grade.” Having spent her youth doing everything by the book so she could get that full-ride to Northwestern only to have it taken away, Tanner is insolent and seething with anger. It’s under these conditions that the two women meet, so it’s not surprising when they don’t hit it off.

But Tanner quickly comes to suspect there’s a lot more to Louise than she first imagined. For instance, why is her house locked up like Fort Knox? Why does she have a gun? What was she doing starting up her car in the middle of the night? And why does she resemble the age-enhanced photograph broadcast on the evening news of the mastermind behind an unsolved jewelry heist in 1975?

Before Tanner can answer those questions, Louise promises to fund Tanner’s last year at Northwestern if she’ll drive them both away from there — NOW! And just like that, the women are on the run, and that’s when things really get interesting.

The result is a fun, breezy read chock full of colorful characters, hilarity and heartwarming moments as Tanner and Louise discover that they’re more alike than appears on the surface.

Credit: HarperCollins

Credit: HarperCollins

Coincidentally, North Carolina author Lee Smith publishes a book next month with similar themes. In “Silver Alert” (Algonquin Books, $27), elderly Herb is overwhelmed by his ailing wife who needs constant care and their well-intentioned children who want their parents to give up their independent lives in Key West. To escape the pressure and blow off steam, Herb takes one last joy ride in his Porsche with his wife’s cheerful manicurist, who isn’t who she appears to be. In the process, they trigger a missing person alert on their journey to discovery.

Full Ride. The Red Clay Writers Conference, taking place April 15-16 at Kennesaw State University and via Zoom, is offering 10 free scholarships. To apply, submit a resume, a cover letter and portfolio by March 31. For details go to

The two-day conference presented by the Georgia Writers Association features workshops and panels with writers including Mayra Cuevas, Anjali Enjeti and Andy Plattner. Tayari Jones, author of “An American Marriage,” will give the keynote address. Tickets are $60-$120. For information go to

DBF on pause. The Decatur Book Festival announced earlier this week that it will not hold an event in 2023 and will use the break to reorganize and strengthen its infrastructure with plans to return in 2024.

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Contact her at