Book review

Hijinks in the Lowcountry

Colorful island family's new generation drives a lively sequel

CorrespondentJuly 5, 2009 

  • Dorothea Benton Frank

    William Morrow, 336 pages

If Pat Conroy and Anne Rivers Siddons are the king and queen of Lowcountry Lit, then Dottie Frank is surely one of the slightly less serious, slightly more lighthearted, members of the royal family.

Born and raised on Sullivan's Island in South Carolina and now living mostly in New Jersey, Frank burst onto the publishing scene 10 years ago with "Sullivan's Island," a loosely autobiographical novel about a colorful island family and its much-loved home, the Island Gamble. "Sullivan's Island" sold more than 1 million copies. Eight more best-sellers followed.

Now, in the very heart of beach season, comes the sequel, as a new generation takes front-and-center at the Island Gamble. Those who read the first book will find its stars still in evidence, albeit in supporting roles. For those unfamiliar with the earlier work, it's easy enough to follow the story without reading the original.

Beth Hayes, newly out of college with vague plans to someday attend the Iowa Writers' Workshop, has been summoned to Sullivan's Island to keep watch over the Island Gamble while her mother, Susan, spends a year teaching in Paris and her Aunt Maggie, Uncle Grant and stepfather Simon move to California.

There's a huge send-off party in the old house, during which one of Beth's successful, vitamin-and-exercise guru twin aunts behaves very badly. Everyone else behaves in the often-eccentric but generally endearing way they usually do.

Then Beth is on her own, with only her little dog, Lola, for company.

Of course the house is haunted.

And Beth is still quite young and insecure, hiding behind thick glasses and bright red dyed hair everyone agrees is ... well, hideous. She's also short of cash, because although she has a trust fund, she can't touch it without permission. Her mother, now off to Paris, tells her to get a job.

Beth finds not one job but two - working as a part-time hostess in a local restaurant, and freelancing for a local newspaper.

For her first story, she interviews - and immediately becomes infatuated with - Max Mitchell, a developer who has torn down a local business to replace it with something more modern.

The reader knows instantly that Max is a cad.

Beth doesn't.

Even as she researches and writes her article about the gentrification of the beach islands, she moons over Max. She thinks he's innocent when she finds him in a hammock with her cousin's date; she fears he's been injured when he doesn't call. She's sure he loves her.

Frank treats the misguided romance with more comedy than angst. Beth's running dialogue with herself is lovesick but not logical, always earnest, frequently funny. The love scenes, both with Max and his much-nicer rival, Woody, are more slapstick than steamy. Less-than-fatal falls, untimely bouts of nausea, an unintended nude peep show ... how sexy can these be?

The pace of the first two-thirds of the novel is unhurried, sometimes nostalgic, often tongue-in-cheek. The reader comes to know Beth and her family: Aunt Maggie, with her incessant warnings about good manners, Aunt Sophie, the "good" twin who treats Beth like the beloved daughter she never had. Even Lola, the dog, is appealing.

If this sounds like leisurely reading for a languid summer day, with a sip of something cold now and then and maybe a little snooze between chapters, hang on.

Suddenly ... presto, chango! The last third of the novel becomes a sharp, eventful page-turner, full of rip-roaring action. Fraud! Heartbreak! Death! A little sad in places, but lots of fun.

If the two parts of the book don't feel quite like one seamless piece it doesn't much matter.

In this mostly sweet tale about a mostly loving family on the magical sea island they all adore, Dottie Frank produces a fine summer read, best enjoyed under a beach umbrella, well within sight of the ocean, to the background music of the lapping tide.

Ellyn Bache's latest novel is "Daughters of the Sea." She lives in South Carolina.

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