Initially, I picked the galley up just to take a peek. I wanted to check out the writing and see where the book might fit or not fit into my reading. HEART OF PALM by Laura Lee Smith begins in 1964 with a long prologue that drew me in and took over my life. Hooked!
Laura Lee Smith is a first time novelist. She has, stunningly, outdone herself. Told in many voices, each one continues to resonate within me, and I find myself thinking about these people as if they are real.
Utina, Florida is a tiny, backward, town, stuck in the past, and not accepting the changes that are a comin’. It’s a scrappy, backwater smack-dab on the Intracoastal Waterway, near St. Augustine, Florida. The real estate boom has not yet caught up to it, but don’t blink your eyes.
The Bravo’s of Utina are an anomaly. They’re cut from a different cloth. They are both unique and ubiquitous: one of the greatest families I’ve read about in a long time.
Arla and Dean Bravo have managed to stay together for years, beating the odds. Their old rambling, falling apart home is named Aberdeen. Even Arla doesn’t know where that name came from. The house is a character, itself. It’s image is forever sketched in my mind. It is the quintessential old Florida house. It sits precipitously on an old side street in the middle of the town, perched high over the Intracoastal Waterway of Utina. It’s been there forever. And so has the gravestone hidden away in the Palmettos, nearby.
Who exactly is Dean Bravo? A wreck of a man who tries to make the best of a terrible situation for as long as he can. Until he can’t. And who is Arla Bravo? A broken shadow of the spunky, lovely woman she once was.
And then there are Arla and Dean’s kids. Frank and Carson are brothers. Sophia, their sister, has never-married, still living at home with mama at the age of 40+. And we have to wonder how sound her mind is. Frank runs the family business: Uncle Henry’s, a bar and grill on the water, nearby. We find out soon that he dreams of running to the mountains; shucking this heat and misery. Frank’s dog Gooch steals the show more than once, riding around in the pickup with attitude. “The dog followed stiffly, not looking at Frank, still miffed about being made to ride in the bed of the pickup.” Carson is an investment counselor. Can you say Ponzi, ponzi, ponzi. He’s a real jerk. And his poor wife Elizabeth seems a saint. Then there’s the “other” one, the lost one.
The heat actually sizzles and pops throughout much of the book, but at one point the women and girls go to St. Augustine, Florida to celebrate a little girl’s birthday. It’s mid July. You have to have experienced this type of misery to understand just how hot it was. But Smith has nailed it. I actually began to feel faint from the oppressive heat while reading this chapter.
Elizabeth, Carson’s wife, thinking to herself after the day spent with his family in the tourist town of St. Augustine. “It was claustrophobic, cloying. Always too many people—the traffic, the tourists, the ubiquitous trolleys! She wanted to walk into the woods, stay there.”
What keeps families together? What is familial love? Some love is just inexplicable. And how does love survive when pushed past the limits of human endurance?
We find quickly that a big-time developer wants to build a huge bustling marina right on the property where Aberdeen and the restaurant stand. And now all Hell is breaking loose. Even a Publix supermarket is being built, and all the crazies are rebelling in ways only their kind understand.
Laura Lee Smith has just joined the ranks of the best Southern Writers. Don’t miss this one.
My galley came from Grove Atlantic. I am thrilled to have been an early reader. Thanks!