Wednesday, February 17, 2016

HEART OF PALM by Laura Lee Smith

Utina, Florida, is a fictional town between Jacksonville and St. Augustine.  Since I live in the vicinity (just across the intracoastal), I relished the references to familiar places.  However, I found the plot and characters a little too clichéd, and the prose struck me as a little too folksy—like Joshilyn Jackson, maybe.  The Bravo family (what a name!)  is full of mischievous but charming boys, starting with Dean, who woos the beautiful, Arla Bolton, convinces her to marry him, and then chops up her foot in a water-skiing accident on their honeymoon.  Arla has certainly married beneath her social status, and now she has to walk with a cane.  Fast forward to 40-odd years later.  Arla’s son Frank, the conscience of the novel, is in love with his brother Carson’s wife and dreams of relocating to an out-of-the-way spot in the North Carolina mountains.  His opportunity arises when an Atlanta developer offers millions of dollars for the family property.  The tragic death of Frank and Carson’s brother Will at the age of fifteen still looms over the family and prompts Dean to abandon them not long after Will’s death.  To me, this novel descends into soap opera territory, and I found it neither funny nor engrossing, and the ending left me disappointed.  Also, I think it propagates the stereotype of Southerners as mean, drunk, or stupid.  Frank, Carson, and Dean all share some responsibility for poor Will’s demise, but their guilt, especially in the case of Carson and Dean, just drives them to behave badly, rather than to earn some level of redemption by changing their wicked ways.  Frank, on the other hand, has two nicknames—Saint Frank and Frank the Prank.  I get the first one, because he is the caring and responsible one, but I’m not sure what the author had in mind with the other nickname.  Sure, he likes to pull the occasional practical joke, and maybe the author just wanted to give Frank a little more personality.  He’s bighearted enough to bail an acquaintance named Tip out of jail, but Tip is back in the slammer before you know it.  I rooted for Frank all the way, but he was still your basic doormat. 

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