Lynn Hamilton

Review by

War is hell, as we all know, but the last word on that still hasn't been said. Now Joanne Harris gives us a book that exposes the ugliness of war from the viewpoint of three neglected children living in a German-occupied French village during World War II. In Five Quarters of the Orange, narrator Framboise Dartigen unfolds a chilling tale in which she and her two siblings find themselves collaborating with Nazis, trading secrets about their neighbors for chocolate and comic books. The great strength of Five Quarters of the Orange is Harris' unflinching honesty about childhood its capacity for treachery and cruelty. Graphic images of Framboise's war against the life of the nearby river underline this theme. After a village girl is bitten and killed by a venomous snake, Framboise nets a dozen snakes, crushes their skulls and leaves them to rot on the riverbanks.

At the heart of the novel, as in the author's earlier work, Chocolat is a complicated relationship between mother and daughter. Framboise's mother Mirabelle mistakenly applies the same techniques to child rearing that she applies to growing fruit trees: prune them severely, and they will flower. She discovers too late that children don't respond well to constant scolding and deprivation. Mirabelle is also plagued by olfactory hallucinations. Prior to her terrible migraines, she thinks she smells oranges. The scenes in which Framboise takes revenge on her mother by planting a cut-up orange near the stove so that the scent fills the house are among the best in the book. Harris reveals her true genius in these episodes of nine-year-old vindictiveness.

Five Quarters of the Orange isn't just another war novel. It's also a mystery. Why does Framboise disguise her identity when she returns to her childhood village after an absence of 50 years? A scandal hangs over her head from that earlier time, a scandal so flagrant she is sure she will never be accepted back into her community if the people there know exactly who she is. This unknown scandal, gradually revealed to the reader through flashbacks, provides most of the novel's suspense.

To dwell only on the horrors of Five Quarters of the Orange would be to do the book an injustice. Though Harris' genius shines most truly in her portrayal of the ways in which war compromises even the innocent, this book is also rich in charm and whimsy the same kind of graceful good humor that made the author's previous book Chocolat such a big hit. Scenes of the grotesque give way to moments of gentle slapstick. People who are tired of conventional treatments of the elderly in literature will especially enjoy the episode in which the elderly Framboise and her aging neighbor get the better of a 20-something hoodlum terrorizing Framboise's creperie. Their shared triumph sparks an autumnal romance that cannot fail to delight the most cynical readers. Even for someone with skeletons in her closet like Framboise, it's never too late to make a clean breast of things, never too late to fall in love.

Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.

 

War is hell, as we all know, but the last word on that still hasn't been said. Now Joanne Harris gives us a book that exposes the ugliness of war from the viewpoint of three neglected children living in a German-occupied French village during World War II. In Five Quarters of the Orange, narrator Framboise […]
Review by

Prepare to lose sleep, skip meals and ignore your e-mail. Anita Shreve's new novel, The Last Time They Met, will keep you turning its pages into the unwholesome hours of the night, even though you know you should put it down and hit the pillow. Shreve's reckless and heroic central character, Thomas Janes, has been in love with Linda Fallon all his life. Though they parted in the wake of a terrible car accident when both were high school seniors, Linda keeps showing up in Thomas' life at crucial moments.

They reconnect in Kenya where Linda is a Peace Corps volunteer. Unhappy in his marriage, Thomas rekindles their romance, but ends it when his wife announces she is pregnant.

Linda turns up in his life again at a poetry conference when both characters are well into middle age. Like Thomas, she has become a distinguished poet, a fitting vocation for two people who first met 35 years earlier in a high school poetry class. Now that he is divorced and she is widowed, will they finally find happiness with each other? Or will some unforeseen disaster separate them again? The reader learns the answer in the first hundred pages of the novel. From there, the narrative moves backward to their encounter in Africa, then on to their teenage love affair. It's not the first fictional experiment in reverse chronology. But it is Shreve's storytelling genius that keeps the suspense building, even after she seems to have given away the ending. The reader correctly senses, in some subterranean way, that secrets surrounding Thomas' and Linda's obsessive desire will be unfolded only at the end, when both characters are 17.

In this novel Shreve not only captures our universal hunger for a lifetime passion that will give meaning and continuity to our fragmentary and discontinuous lives, she also flawlessly captures the longing to retrieve something that was lost in early youth. And she does this while driving toward a jolting conclusion that forces the reader to reinterpret everything he has just read.

While the popular appeal of The Last Time They Met will probably send it straight to the bestseller list, its literary merits, especially the extraordinary use of unreliable narration, will make it a talked about book in literary circles for years to come.

Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.

Prepare to lose sleep, skip meals and ignore your e-mail. Anita Shreve's new novel, The Last Time They Met, will keep you turning its pages into the unwholesome hours of the night, even though you know you should put it down and hit the pillow. Shreve's reckless and heroic central character, Thomas Janes, has been […]
Review by

Giant reptilian skeletons, stuffed birds and groups of marginally behaved, uniform – clad school children. These are, perhaps, the images that spring to mind when we think of a museum of natural history. In his book Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, Richard Fortey takes us on a tour behind this familiar stage and shows us the important research and documentation that takes place in the vast wings of an internationally important museum – where the public, including screaming school children, rarely follows.

Fortey should know; he spent much of his working life at London's Natural History Museum where he was until recently a senior paleontologist. He's been a fellow of the Royal Society since 1997 and is the author of acclaimed books on natural history, including Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth. Fortey makes an impressive case, early on, for the tremendous importance of the Natural History Museum, especially the part of it that flies under the radar of the press and public consciousness. One chapter invites the reader to open a few of the thousands of drawers that rest in the museum's backstage. Inside each drawer is a beautifully laid out and scientifically important display that helps the world understand, for instance, the relationship between various molluscs or leafing plants. Such displays and collections are essential to tracking species' names and cataloging new species and placing them with their relatives as they are discovered.

Dry Storeroom No. 1 also has a lot to offer to the non-scientist, aided by Fortey's witty, approachable writing style. His account of how staff at his museum uncovered the Piltdown Man fraud will be of interest to practically everyone. And the sacking of a high-ranking museum scientist who could not resist the lure of Nessie, the fabled Loch Ness monster, makes entertaining reading. Fortey also reports on his peer, Martin Hall, who should be – but isn't – in the history books for saving Africa. Hall, also a Natural History Museum scientist, discovered a flesh-eating worm in African livestock before it became an apocalyptic plague. When African officials didn't immediately believe him, he bred some of the worms' larvae in his hotel room. An ensuing sterilization program saved the continent's agricultural industry and possibly also prevented the worm from crossing over into the wildlife population. "It would have been an unprecedented catastrophe for an already blighted continent," Fortey writes.

Fortey's previous books offer glimpses into our geological past; this one conveys a fascinating look behind the scenes of an institution rich in the tradition of scientific curiosity. Walking past impressive displays of dinosaur bones, creepy crawlies, and other items, Fortey goes deep into the museum's private spaces to spotlight ongoing research into our planet's history, showing how it contributes to our understanding of Earth's present and future.

Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.

Giant reptilian skeletons, stuffed birds and groups of marginally behaved, uniform – clad school children. These are, perhaps, the images that spring to mind when we think of a museum of natural history. In his book Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, Richard Fortey takes us on a tour […]
Review by

Born into captivity, Nim Chimpsky was whisked out of his mother’s arms and plopped into a human family, where he was the center of an experiment by research psychologist Herbert Terrace, aimed at discovering whether chimps can learn language. Nim learned more than 100 words in American Sign Language and, according to the testimony of those he lived with, he often used them in combinations that looked much like sentences. As part of his training, he also had to endure all the other strictures of being human, from wearing clothes to brushing his teeth to spending hours a day in the classroom. He evolved into a bad-tempered and difficult adult. Nim’s life, as chronicled by Elizabeth Hess in Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, often reads like a “good kid gone bad” profile.

Unlike other chimps who have lived serene and gentle lives in captivity, Nim was frequently violent, periodically sending his caretakers to the hospital and, at one point, killing the family poodle. He learned some dubious habits from the humans with whom he identified; he was overly fond of dessert and grouchy without his morning coffee. Once Nim outgrew his baby cuteness as well as his welcome within several families, Terrace astonished his own staff by repudiating Nim’s language skills, claiming that the chimp was merely mimicking language. From there, things went downhill fast for the celebrity chimp whose appearance on “Sesame Street” didn’t save him from a short stay in a biomedical research lab. He was rescued by Robert Ingersoll, a poorly paid staffer who had basically been Nim’s babysitter. Finally, legendary animal rights advocate Cleveland Amory offered Nim a place at the Black Beauty ranch for rescued animals – where Nim continued to sign ASL, even when there was nobody around who understood him.

We know now, from genetics, that chimpanzees are basically human – only they’re a lot more talented with their feet – and Nim’s life raises all sorts of troubling questions, least of which is whether animals are capable of language.

Nim's life, as chronicled by Elizabeth Hess in Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, often reads like a "good kid gone bad" profile.
Review by

Ten years in the making, Dale Peterson's definitive biography Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man finally shows us Goodall's life as a whole: her charmed childhood in the English countryside, her early career as a secretary, her association with renowned anthropologist Louis Leakey and her later role as animal rights activist. From Peterson, we learn that Goodall's defining scientific discovery that chimpanzees create and use tools to secure their termite lunches came in her first year of life among the chimps. Goodall's other landmark achievements her documentation of a chimp-enacted genocide, her many books and films and her advocacy for laboratory chimps all unfold with a satisfying wealth of detail. Goodall fans will be interested to learn the important role her mother, Vanne, played as a companion in Jane's earliest African sojourns and the occasional suffocation Goodall felt in both her marriages to domineering men. The chapter in which Goodall's student assistants are kidnapped and held for half a million dollars in ransom is also a serious page-turner.

Perhaps more importantly, Peterson captures the qualities of character and determination that have made Goodall a legend. We see the young scientist marching tirelessly ahead of her male escorts, none of whom were able to keep up with her and who threatened mutiny against Goodall's regimen of long hours, hard climbs and Spartan meals. We see her turning over nearly all her income to establish research foundations and tirelessly rescuing mistreated chimps. An epiphanic moment in Peterson's book shows us a cab driver recognizing Goodall in his rearview mirror. Soon he has pulled the car over to the side of the road; driver and celebrity have a long discussion about Goodall's work and what it means to the cabbie's children. In this small episode, we see that Goodall's importance is almost impossible to measure because she means so much to so many people, legions of whom live far from the ivory towers of academic science. The lessons of Goodall's life cheer spiritual seekers, rally animal rights activists, affirm wilderness conservationists, and walk alongside young women incubating their own hopes and dreams.

Ten years in the making, Dale Peterson's definitive biography Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man finally shows us Goodall's life as a whole: her charmed childhood in the English countryside, her early career as a secretary, her association with renowned anthropologist Louis Leakey and her later role as animal rights activist. From Peterson, we […]
Review by

While others are stretching and reaching blindly for that first cup of morning coffee, legendary swimmer Lynne Cox is earning her breakfast with a miles-long unsupervised swim in the cold Pacific Ocean. This championship swimmer has dodged ocean liners, conquered channels, and written perceptively about it all in an acclaimed memoir, Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer. But her latest book, Grayson, isn't about the swimmer's restless drive to push some new boundary. Instead, it looks back on a morning 30 years ago a morning that started with a routine ocean workout. Cox isn't scared of much, but she did get nervous when she realized an enormous marine animal was stalking her.

Well, not stalking. The baby gray whale, Grayson, had lost its mother and fixed on Cox. Did he read her mind? Did he somehow intuit that, out of all the mammals in the sea, this one would not abandon him to his fate? Soon Cox's tale changes from that of a solitary swimmer, menaced ˆ la Jaws by a creature from the deep, to a desperate search for the mother gray whale. Shunting worries that the baby will starve or that she herself will go hypothermic and drown, Cox escorts Grayson through miles of ocean, looking for mom while Coast Guardsmen and fishermen scan the horizon for a solitary mother.

It leads to a tear-wrenching conclusion that could only have been lived and written by a woman unafraid to challenge the unknown in nothing but her swimsuit.

While others are stretching and reaching blindly for that first cup of morning coffee, legendary swimmer Lynne Cox is earning her breakfast with a miles-long unsupervised swim in the cold Pacific Ocean. This championship swimmer has dodged ocean liners, conquered channels, and written perceptively about it all in an acclaimed memoir, Swimming to Antarctica: Tales […]
Review by

On an April afternoon in 1935, Hugh Bennett was lecturing a group of U.S. senators on the causes of the Great Plains Dust Bowl. As he spoke, the window darkened as if night were falling. Dust from the Midwestern plains had drifted all the way to the nation's capital and blotted out the sun. This, gentlemen, is what I'm talking about, said Bennett. There goes Oklahoma. Nothing better illustrates the disastrous effects of bad applied science than the dust storms of the 1930s, the complex subject of Timothy Egan's new book, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.

Egan tells the story of this disaster through the eyes of those who lived through it cowboys like Bam White and farmers like Don Hartwell who saw part of rural America literally blown away. Scientists now say that the Dust Bowl, roughly comprised of western Kansas, southeastern Colorado, northern Texas and the Oklahoma panhandle, should never have been farmed in the first place. The region's topsoil was held in place against constant driving winds only by hardy native grasses. That didn't stop the federal government from bullishly promoting homestead farming throughout the plains in the 1920s. An unusual amount of rain, leading to a short-term agricultural boom, sustained the illusion that the sea of grass could be plowed up and farmed indefinitely. Once the rain stopped, unanchored soil kicked up, suffocating crops and blinding cattle. Farm children died of dust pneumonia; whole towns failed.

Egan debunks some prevalent myths about the Dust Bowl, most of them emanating from Hollywood. The novel Grapes of Wrath and its film version give the impression that most poor farm immigrants (aka Oakies) who moved to California in the 1930s were escapees from the Dust Bowl. Egan notes that, of the 221,000 people who moved to California from 1935 to 1937, only 16,000 were from the Dust Bowl. Films like The Plow that Broke the Plains give the impression that farmers alone were to blame for the disaster, but Egan notes that overgrazing cattle, drought, surplus crops, falling grain prices and homesteading laws that required big farms on small claims all contributed to flying topsoil.

Even now, 70 years later, the damage is not wholly repaired. Bennett's soil conservation program, launched in haste that April afternoon in Washington, D.C., has replanted much of the area with grass and united farmers in a scheme to rotate crops and save soil. It is the only one of Roosevelt's New Deal initiatives that survives today. But ghost towns and occasional dust storms still remind us that we displace nature at our own peril.

Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.

 

On an April afternoon in 1935, Hugh Bennett was lecturing a group of U.S. senators on the causes of the Great Plains Dust Bowl. As he spoke, the window darkened as if night were falling. Dust from the Midwestern plains had drifted all the way to the nation's capital and blotted out the sun. This, […]
Review by

As a chubby nine-year-old, Lynne Cox was the slowest kid in the pool. But she loved swimming, so she kept plugging away at it. When the coach ordered her class out of the water because a storm was brewing, she got permission to keep swimming. When hail started falling, Cox kept swimming alone in a pool full of ice.

Scientists would later determine that her unique ratio of muscle to body fat made her anomalously suited to swimming long distances in water so cold, it would kill an ordinary swimmer within minutes. At 15, Cox swam the English Channel, breaking the world record. The next year, she went back to England and broke the record again.

It would be a mistake to think that Cox's new autobiography, Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer, is of interest only to swimmers. In fact, the book has more in common with heroic literature of the ancient world like Beowulf and The Odyssey than with the typical athlete's success story. Like those ancient heroes, Cox isn't satisfied with races that have a designated course. Instead, she looks for unique athletic challenges that only she can overcome. That's why, at 17, she fell out of love with channel swimming and, instead, took on the unknown swimming icy lakes, straits and channels that had been thought impossible for a swimmer to breach. Her famous 1987 swim across the Bering Sea from Alaska to the Soviet Union took 10 years to plan, and the water, in August, was barely above freezing.

Although Cox isn't a professional writer, she has a keen eye for details that turn an important life experience into an entertaining story. Readers will be amused, for instance, by the English cab driver who told Cox she was too fat to swim the Channel as he was driving her to the beach for that express purpose.

While other athletes were wooed by corporate sponsors, Cox had to finance her own projects. Her story is a powerful account of clinging hard to a bigger dream.

Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.

As a chubby nine-year-old, Lynne Cox was the slowest kid in the pool. But she loved swimming, so she kept plugging away at it. When the coach ordered her class out of the water because a storm was brewing, she got permission to keep swimming. When hail started falling, Cox kept swimming alone in a […]
Review by

Rick Bragg, be afraid. Be very afraid. Chris Offutt is going to give you a run for your money. Characterized by a clarion style, an ability to capture the voice of the southeastern hill country and a keen, impartial eye for detail, Offutt's new memoir No Heroes tells of the author's return to rural Kentucky where he was born and raised. Originally from Haldeman, Kentucky, Offutt was one of the few boys from his town to go to college, and one of even fewer to attend the local state school, Morehead State University.

Morehead gave Offutt enough steam to propel him into a prosperous writing and teaching career on the West Coast. Though successful, married and blessed with children, Offutt found himself hopelessly homesick for Kentucky—its woods and wildflowers, the truant boys and wayward girls he grew up with. Offutt's opportunity to come home again arrives when Morehead advertises an opening for an English professor. He gets the job, hoping to recognize his own young, ambitious self in his students. But he doesn't mince the cultural limitations of rural Kentucky. The prologue of No Heroes is organized around a list of things Offutt has to bring with him from the city music and books and another list of things he can leave behind: the tuxedo, the foreign car, the burglar alarm and the attitude. In fact the prologue really sets up the dichotomy Offutt experiences throughout the book: his deep emotional connection to the hills of his childhood versus an intellectual hunger for something outside those hills.

While in many ways he has grown distant from his hometown and its unspoken rules, he finds that it is the only place where he can be completely himself. "Here, you won't get judged by your jeans and boots. . . . Never again will you worry that you're using the wrong fork, saying the wrong thing, or expecting people to keep their word. . . . You are no longer from somewhere. Here is where you are. This is home."

Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.

 

Rick Bragg, be afraid. Be very afraid. Chris Offutt is going to give you a run for your money. Characterized by a clarion style, an ability to capture the voice of the southeastern hill country and a keen, impartial eye for detail, Offutt's new memoir No Heroes tells of the author's return to rural Kentucky […]
Review by

No epidemic has equaled the devastation of the Bubonic Plague, which decimated between one-third and three-quarters of Europe’s population in the Middle Ages and continued to flare up in destructive pockets for centuries after. In Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks eerily captures every aspect of life during the plague: the gruesomely painful death, the speed with which the disease spread and the superstitions surrounding it, which rivaled the plague itself for horror.

Brooks takes as her inspiration the town of Eyam, a real-life village in England’s Derbyshire countryside. The skeleton of her novel comes from history, from a mysterious and unpredicted outbreak of the plague in Eyam. For reasons we will never know for sure, but which played fiercely on the writer’s imagination, the people of Eyam took a vow not to run from their village in the hope of saving themselves. Instead, they stayed put and nursed each other until death did them part. It is reasonable to view this extraordinary sacrifice as a public service, as the inhabitants of Eyam thus kept the contagion within their village when they could so easily have panicked and, in fleeing the scene of death, taken the infection all over rural England. The Bubonic Plague may sound like a morbid subject. Yet the topic fascinates, in part because a study of the plague is always a study in human nature, revealing the extremes of nobility and depravity people are capable of when faced with pain and fear of the unknown. Brooks uses the story of Eyam as a backdrop for characters and stories that illustrate these extremes.

Year of Wonders could not have been an easy novel to write. In the ordinary disaster narrative, suspense comes from not knowing whether the community under attack will survive its menace. But anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the Black Death knows from the beginning how Year of Wonders will end. At least two-thirds of the village will die. As a microcosm of the epidemic, Eyam’s death toll will mirror the plague’s overall totals.

So Brooks must create suspense elsewhere, surprising us by how this character rises to the challenge with tireless dedication while that one succumbs to depression and another loses her mind. The full range of plague-related superstitions finds its way into Brooks’ Eyam. Some villagers look for a witch to blame while others dabble in witchcraft, hoping to ward off their fate. One character takes to self-flagellation in the hope of placating an angry Christian God.

The story is told through the eyes of Anna Frith, a young woman with two boys to raise. Frith is the widow of a miner, and she works as a servant in the homes of the village squire and rector. In most ways, she is a conventional, if unusually quick-witted, woman. She married young, her education is haphazard, and she is disinclined to question the religious beliefs that serve as the town’s infrastructure. Were it not for the plague, she would no doubt have lived and died in the same 17th century English country village, without leaving a detectable trace. The extraordinary circumstances of the plague derail her from this path of least resistance and evoke a heroism in her character of which even she herself is only vaguely aware until the novel’s last pages.

A native of Australia and a former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, Geraldine Brooks has previously written two critically acclaimed works of nonfiction, Foreign Correspondence and Nine Parts of Desire. With Year of Wonders, she proves equally adept at writing gripping historical fiction.

 

Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.

In Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks eerily captures every aspect of life during the plague: the gruesomely painful death, the speed with which the disease spread and the superstitions surrounding it, which rivaled the plague itself for horror.
Interview by

When Dorothea Benton Frank's mother died, her family's old beach house on Sullivan's Island went up for sale. Frank wanted to buy it. Well, she wanted her husband to buy it, and when he wouldn't, she pitched a little temper tantrum about the size of Russia, the author says.

So she told him she was going to write a bestseller, sell a million copies and buy back her mother's house. She started writing about her childhood on Sullivan's Island, a then sparsely developed barrier island off the coast of South Carolina. Out of that came her first book, Sullivan's Island: A Low Country Tale. Writing that book helped Frank deal with the death of her mother and the loss of her childhood space.

It was also a bet she placed on herself and won. Sullivan's Island did sell a million copies. Frank chased that success with six more books. Her work continues to explore the same themes of childhood memories, loss and, above all, the beautiful islands of South Carolina, that made her first novel successful. Now Frank has drawn on her experience of reinventing herself in her 40s to bring her growing readership The Land of Mango Sunsets.

The novel features Miriam Swanson, a late-40s desperado who is barely clinging to a joyless New York high society lifestyle. Married at 18, Miriam now finds herself bitter and demoralized by a messy divorce. She fought gracelessly against the rift and drove a wedge between herself and her beloved sons, her future daughter-in-law and her grandchildren. With no college degree and no career to buffer the blow, Miriam's days stretch out in a series of desperate, panic-ridden moments. Miriam strives valiantly against this fate, hoping to balance the scales through volunteer work at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which throws her among elite society's grandest dames. In one of the novel's most horrific and hilarious moments, Miriam stumbles, falls and spills an urn full of coffee on hundreds of laboriously handwritten invitations.

But Frank doesn't paint Miriam in purely dark or tragic strokes. Instead, her story is infused with funk and humor. She takes refuge in her pet parrot Harry who periodically lambastes Miriam's ex with the chant Charles is a horse's ass. Miriam also takes comfort in a platonic friendship with her tenant Kevin Dolan, who is by all measures a saint, a devoted friend and an exceptional drinking buddy. Miriam and Kevin jump headfirst into the lives of Miriam's second tenant, a naive young woman named Liz, whose dalliance with a married man turns into a dangerous liaison without warning.

Miriam, Kevin and Liz form what Frank calls a chosen family, something she thinks is becoming more typical as people move further away from their families and their roots. "A lot of people I know don't have a stitch of family around them, don't have a relative within 500 miles. Those people you run around with become your chosen family," Frank says.

Miriam's life of quiet stagnation comes quickly to an end after her disaster at the Met. That disgrace is the catalyst for sweeping life change, and it begins with a return to Sullivan's Island, which is as much Miriam's childhood home as it is Frank's. Will Miriam reinvent herself as successfully as her author did? "You'll have to read The Land of Mango Sunsets to find out."

We're not spoiling your surprise. But we will say that Frank admits she drew on her own ability to make big changes late in the game. She had a lucrative career importing garments from Korea and Hong Kong. Then, after her mother's death, she taught herself to write novels and succeeded at that, too. In her latest novel, Frank draws on her extensive knowledge of the garment industry as inspiration for the career of Kevin, a window display designer for a high-end New York department store.

And Frank also draws on her own extensive experience as a volunteer, especially at New Jersey's Montclair Art Museum, where she saw a coffee accident similar to Miriam's. "In the highly strung world of society volunteering, such an incident brands its victim," Frank says. "You become the one who blew the invitations. That kind of thing just follows you around until you're dead."

But it would be a mistake to see Miriam as a thinly veiled version of her author. The similarities are there, but Frank describes Miriam as a citizen of her own planet, both self-absorbed and mired in outdated traditions. "She is the last vestige of small-town America when women were expected to be very prim," Frank says, adding, "She hangs on to it a little too long.

It's fine to practice the good, old-fashioned Southern virtues that define a lady," Frank says, "but what happens when the world of the Southern belle falls to pieces?"

She's seen it happen to people she knows. "They're so stunned. What they were told to do by their parents didn't work because the world changed when no one was looking," she says.

For her extremely realistic portrait of Miriam as a desperate, lonely and defeated divorcee, Frank drew mostly on the experiences of people she knows who have had to live through similar events. Frank's own first marriage was so short, she describes it as a drive-through or maybe a drive-by.

There's no question that Frank's books have struck a chord with a lot of readers. She thinks it's because she writes about things that are on her mind as she deals with the death of loved ones, raising teenagers and growing old. "I'm talking to people my age about things I'm thinking about," she says.

Her audience is "a lot of very old ladies, bless them every one, and [baby] boomers." But sometimes a teenager will turn up in her fan club. It might be because the girl's mother gave her one of Frank's books, hoping it would help the reader understand her mom.

Frank's avid readers can count on seeing the South Carolina coast form the backdrop of books to come. Frank's love affair with Sullivan's Island and the area around Charleston doesn't look like it's going anywhere. She finally bought that house on Sullivan's Island, though not the house she grew up in. At the end of the day, though, that's okay with Frank. The island draws her home, and she realizes now that her childhood home may be redolent of too much sadness.

"I grew up in a Southern gothic novel, by the way," she explains. But that's not the kind of thing Frank writes. Her own books are breezier, funnier and more optimistic than that. On her website, Frank describes her novels as "good beach reads for people who want something to think about while they're soaking up the sun: Yes, I write to entertain but I also write to understand this complicated world and want to take you with me on the journey."

Lynn Hamilton is editor of the Tybee News in the coastal community of Tybee Island, Georgia.

When Dorothea Benton Frank's mother died, her family's old beach house on Sullivan's Island went up for sale. Frank wanted to buy it. Well, she wanted her husband to buy it, and when he wouldn't, she pitched a little temper tantrum about the size of Russia, the author says. So she told him she was […]

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!