Monday, June 20, 2016
Family as Microcosm
"A costly delicacy indeed, when to get to the heart you must kill the tree."
Heart of Palm begins with this epigraphic statement and in some ways tells you everything you need to know from the very first page.
This is the story of the Bravos, told at first in a prologue which left me curiously unengaged with the story of how the parents in question, Dean and Arla, met, married, and almost immediately began the string of disasters that passed for family life. I had trouble with the prologue; it seemed to be trying too hard, namedropping right and left in a self-conscious effort to be quirky and charming, and perhaps also to establish the author's Florida cred. (She gets almost all of the details right, by the way.) Despite the prologue, I found myself thoroughly engrossed in the story soon after it stopped being a summary.
Once it gets going, it really gets going. There's a little bit of everything jumbled together here, much as Florida is a jumble of its own. Dean disappears, while Arla soldiers on with their children in an increasingly dilapidated Queen Anne house. Daughter Sofia lives at home and has what one can politely call "issues," son Carson has a morally and financially precarious life in nearby St. Augustine, and son Frank capably sustains the family restaurant business while longing to be somewhere else, specifically a very un-Florida cabin in the mountains. An adorable dog, a disbarred lawyer, a pushy real estate agent, and a host of other colorful characters round out the picture of life in Utina, a backwater Florida town just being "discovered" by developers and the rich.
This could be a romp, but it's more like a swim on the surface of tannic water when you know a gator probably lurks below. The Bravos must decide whether to sell their unique property on the Intracoastal Waterway, knowing they are one of the first dominoes to fall in Utina. As the temptation of "big money" soaks into their consciousness, they find themselves facing up to their family legacy of tragedy, guilt, regret, and longing, poorly equipped to make a decision presented in so many shades of gray.
All this creates a microcosm for Florida itself: the layers of history, much of it tragic; the inevitability of change; and the destruction of the natural landscape and the local way of life by those who come here for the small town charm but still want their Publix, Starbucks, and Wal-Mart.
What's surprising is the amount of reconciliation and healing that can be found in this story. For all their bruises and wounds, conflicts and failings, the Bravos somehow discover that what they have in common is immutable. And that holds hope for Florida, as well. Even swimming in that tannic water, maybe you're safe after all.
(This Florida Book Award silver medal winner serves as the blue book in the Color Coded Reading Challenge and doubles up for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge. Clever, huh?)
[Arla] walked out to the back deck, where the reflection of the moon was now splintered across the water and the cries of the barred owls had begun to echo in the trees. She'd had too many glasses of wine, she knew, though she didn't particularly care. She clutched her cane in one hand and her purse in the other and made her way to the end of the boat dock. She looked left, to the distant glow of the porch light at Aberdeen. She looked right, to where Morgan's restaurant had stood years before. Along the reedy shore, in the light of the full moon, were a series of small, newly cut wooden posts, each tied with a bright red band. Surveyors' marks, she supposed. The beginning. Or the end, depending on how you looked at it.