August Read of the Month – On Folly Beach, by Karen White

We’ll end this summer’s picks with a page-turning beach read that’s been on the NYT’s extended list since it’s release in May.

Bestselling author, Karen White, delivers the ultimate summer southern setting in her new release, On Folly Beach (New American Library/ Penguin Publishing Group, May 2010). She allows readers to visit this South Carolina barrier island during the peak of WWII, when Folly Beach is the hot spot for dancing away troubles – and again in modern times, when a hurricane-battered community seems the ideal place to overcome life’s battle scars.

Like many bestsellers, this book is written for the patient reader. White has mastered the craft of delivering pieces slowly, with the final details not revealed until the very end.

Across the time span, Folly Beach is a place where people are constantly coming and going. In one era, soldiers arrive to an island of ladies-in-waiting. Later, tourists swarm the summer shores. Throughout the decades, White portrays just a few of these characters, taking time to expose their complexity and to weave a complicated web of mystery and deceit.

During World War II, readers meet Maggie, one of the most dutiful women ever to walk across a page. In complete contrast, there’s Catherine (“Cat”), her seductive cousin who, after becoming a young widow, rushes to the dance floor saying, “Jim’s dead, Maggie. Not me.”

Catherine and Maggie’s lives are entwined in a way that only the deepest relationships can be. Maggie spends most of her time pitying Cat and believes Cat’s promiscuity roots from her need to prove she’s desirable, “as if to prove that her father’s leaving and her mothers’ death had nothing to do with them not wanting her enough.”

Because of a death-bed promise to her mother, Maggie spends her life in Cat’s dark shadow, and Cat takes full advantage.

The young women operate a small store, along with Maggie’s young, Nancy-Drew obsessed sister, Lulu, who considers herself a spy. Add the impending dangers of German U-boats, deadly currents, and a couple of macho military men, and the result is a well-delivered page turner that keeps readers coming back for more.

That story in itself would have been enough, but White doesn’t make it that easy for the reader. She tells the tale decades later, when a war-widow of barely thirty struggles to accept that “Ben is gone” after his death in Afghanistan. Emmy dares to make big changes in her life, and relocates to Folly Beach when her mother tells her, “You’re the me I never let myself be.”

She purchases the store once operated by the three women, and she meets Lulu who has grown up to become a bitter eccentric with plenty of buried secrets. Upon arrival, Emmy discovers a bottle tree with a note that reads, “Come back to me.” That proves to be the first of many clandestine messages Emmy finds, most of which are inscribed in the margins of old books.

Emmy dives into the mystery, unraveling a twisted tale of love, obsession, and loyalty, as she discovers “it’s hard to know who to believe.”

Throughout the book, White also presents a recurring theme of mother-daughter relationships, exposing damaged characters who yearn for their mother’s love, and building scenes on the beach where large loggerhead turtles lay their eggs on the shore before disappearing back into the sea. Maggie wonders “how a mother could leave her babies, never knowing if any of them would survive, and if the babies ever knew they’d been abandoned. She hoped they didn’t.”

Years later, Emmy struggles with her mother’s disconnect, thinking “it had grown from her mother’s heart being broken too many times with the deaths of her babies; there simply hadn’t been enough remaining to hold another child.”

Ultimately, this is a story about love and loss. Loyalty and lust. Secrets and strength. And most of all, survival.

In the end, Emmy learns the importance of knowing “when long enough is long enough,” – as the pieces all come together and everyone realizes their need to let go.


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