Saturday, July 18, 2009

Return to Sullivan's Island Review

It's review time again, ladies and gentlemen! This time we're going to be talking about Return to Sullivan's Island by Dorothy Benton Frank. As always, full disclosure first: I received a free copy of this book and a $20 Amazon gift certificate (which I assume comes after I actually post this review!).

Here in the Lowcountry, the island and coastal communities surrounding Charleston, SC, "Dottie" Frank, as she's known more familiarly, is a bit of a local legend. Her first novel, Sullivan's Island, talked about a family who lived and loved on the real Sullivan's Island, sandwiched between the coastal community of Mt. Pleasant and the Isle of Palms, all just up the coast from my own James Island. Subsequent novels were set on other nearby islands and have been hugely popular around here. Frank herself inspires both adulation (local SC historian and radio personality Walter Edgar could hardly contain his adoration when he interviewed her on his show) and hatred (some of the local bookstore employees where she does periodic readings can't stand her), the kinds of strong feelings one might expect to swirl around a local girl made good. As for me, I've never met her, but I have heard lots about her and was excited to read Return to Sullivan's Island, a sequel of sorts to her first novel. Sadly, this book was a disappointment, in more ways than one.

When I was in grad school, learning to be a literary critic, one of my professors decided my colleagues and I were taking the idea of "critic" a bit too far when we never had anything positive to say about anyone we read, no matter who they were or what they'd written. She introduced us to the idea of the sympathetic read (her words) and challenged us to find the admirable, the worthwhile in what we were reading before we tore it apart. In that spirit, I will say that Frank does an excellent job of evoking local color in her novel. She refers to actual people and places, weaving them seamlessly into her narrative, creating a verisimilitude that must be the hallmark of all her novels, given their popularity with the locals. Her acknowledgments revealed even more real people than I had suspected were mentioned in the novel. In addition, she refers repeatedly to local customs and peculiarities, island quirks only a native would know or appreciate. Some of these references Frank explains for the uninitiated, but many she simply mentions as an aside, a kind of covert message to the faithful.

However, the novel is uneven in many places, particularly with regards to character and story development. The main character, Beth, a recent college grad, continually used anachronistic terms. In one moment, she would refer to her "Tina Fey glasses" and someone being as cute as Robert Pattison. In another moment, Beth would make observations that could perhaps make her seem wise beyond her years but really made her seem as if she was channelling a retiree in unnatural ways. It's clear that Frank is trying, a bit too hard, to create a "young" character, but Beth comes off less as hip and more as unnervingly inconsistent. The only consistent element of Beth's character is her tendency to flip flop disconcertingly between commonsensical actions and wildly ill-considered decisions. Perhaps this is what Franks herself thinks of the young?

The story itself suffers from this same kind of schizophrenia. Beth is forced to return to watch over the family home while her mother goes away to Paris for a year. (This island abode, by the way, is called The Island Gamble, with the "the" capitalized 80% of the time, oddly.) The novel chronicles her time there, during which she encounters, in no particular order, love, friendship, career development, swindling, murder, ghosts, the FBI, fraud, drunkenness, and a makeover. Yes, you read that list right. Frank is nothing if not ambitious as far as plot goes, but the narrative seems forced, particularly at the end, when fantastic events pile onto each other at an ever increasing and increasingly implausible pace. The ghost story interwoven throughout the narrative is one of the most forced of all the story elements. I believe this plot point is another of Frank's attempts to weave in local color, but she never explores the ghost(s) or their messages enough to justify their presence.

I had been looking forward to doing this review and perhaps reading more of Frank's works, but now I think I have had just about enough of Sullivan's and all the rest of her islands. They clearly have an appeal for a certain (I would argue, older) segment of the populous, but they're really not my type.

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