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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Review: 'On Folly Beach'

By Karen White
Women's Fiction
May 2010
NAL Accent
ISBN: 978-0-451-22921-2

You know how you have a favorite author who just seems to get better and better? And so you know it's going to be a wonderful reading experience when that author's latest book comes out?

Well, what if the expectation isn't matched by the actual experience? This is hard to say, because this author, formerly a delightful correspondent on CompuServe's old Litforum, appears to be trying too hard. On Folly Beach has some wonderful ideas and retains Karen White's wonderful outlook on life, family and loving, but it was far too convoluted for what should have been a memorable story.

On Folly Beach goes back and forth in time between the present and WWII. In the present, a young military widow takes her mother's advice to buy the bookstore in Mom's old hometown. Emmy isn't sure at first what to make of the conditions she's expected to agree to, including keeping the former owner on as a part-time employee and giving space to the owner's elderly aunt by marriage to sell her bottle trees. That elderly aunt, Lulu, is contrary and contankerous. She's prickly and unpleasant. And, of course, she holds the answers to a puzzle from the past that Emmy discovers in boxes of old books.

What she finds are notes written between an unknown man and woman, expressing longing, despair and all the other emotions expected in a doomed love affair. Who these people are is no secret to the reader, because the story of that woman, her family and her doomed love affairs is interspersed with the contemporary tale. Heroine Maggie is one of those women who everyone counts on and who cannot determine the course of her own life because she accepts those responsibilities without condition. She is raising her younger sister, Lulu. Her beautiful, young widow of a cousin, unsurprisingly named Cat, lives with them. Cat needs everyone to love her. She stole Maggie's only boyfriend and married Jim, who died early in WWII. Now a stranger to Folly Beach is paying attention to Maggie. It's no surprise what happens and how Maggie ends up taking care of everyone.

As Emmy puts Maggie's story together, she and Lulu discover lines of communication. Lulu's hunky nephew shows up from Atlanta often enough to help push Emmy out of her shell as well. Even without the end to this particular part of the story being written, it's pretty apparent what's going to happen.

Alternating timelines often make for rewarding reading experiences. In this case, however, it's not really needed. The compelling story is Maggie's. She is the protagonist of the book and deserves more attention that this format gives her. Lulu and Cat also are more than one-note characters and deserved to have come to life even more. Also, there is such a buildup to the complete story of her second suitor that it should have had more play in its revelation. This buildup only to move to the background is displayed throughout the novel, including the early use of bottle trees as places to leave messages. They are warned about as being evil, they are treasured, they are abandoned for notes in books. Footsteps that Emmy hears also are abandoned.

Had On Folly Beach been written in a linear fashion, it could have been one of those captivating family sagas that once filled the popular fiction bookshelves. White already has shown she can revitalize a genre with her Civil War-era Gothic romance, Whispers of Goodbye. When she branched out to contemporary romance that leaned more toward women's fiction with novels such as Falling Home, White again showed her mastery in creating characters to care about. The characters in On Folly Beach deserved that treatment. And White would still have been able to chronicle Lulu's journey by following her through the years instead of jumping back and forth. Her story might have had even more of an emotional impact if we had seen her grow old and shrivel as time made her think she had done everything wrong.

It is the characters' choices in trying to do the right thing that ends up causing everyone heartache. Going into this aspect into depth rather than Emmy's superficial investigation into the letters might have been an even more absorbing story. The potential is certainly there. Important discoveries by various characters do not receive the center stage they deserve.

As with most of her fiction, White, a true daughter of the South, writes with loving detail to put the reader on the South Carolina shore. Her love of these special settings is one of her strengths, and it is displayed well here. If only White's other strengths had been shown off as well.

© 2010 All Rights Reserved Reviews at CompuServe Books and reprinted with permission

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