“Heart of Palm,” by Laura Lee Smith

Laura Lee Smith

Laura Lee Smith

Reviewed by Phil Jason

Reprinted, with permission, from Florida Weekly.

This is the one I’ve been waiting for. The big surprise. A debut novel set in Florida that has it all: family, community, dreams, secrets, the best kind of local color, tragedy, humor, hatred, compassion, love, change.

It’s 2008. Arla Bolton Bravo, of the fashionable St. Augustine Boltons, is sixty-two years old. Her no-account husband Dean, who fathered their four children, has been long gone. When she chose Dean without even considering more appropriate suitors, her parents could hardly bear the disgrace. The Bravos were riff-raff, troublemakers.

When handsome, reckless Dean took Arla to the moonshine town of Utina, just outside of St. Augustine but culturally light-years away, the fulfillment of a promise that Arla had carried into her eighteenth year – the promise of being truly special – was poisoned. When he accidentally severed her foot during a boating frolic, their relationship was double-doomed. How could they survive her handicap and his guilt?

How could they, Dean and his older sons in particular, survive the accidental death of the youngest child, Will, whom Dean had egged on to drink himself silly as a proof of manhood? It wasn’t long after that disaster that Dean took off.

Arla had purchased a local restaurant, Uncle Henry’s Bar and Grill, and Frank had been its nonstop manager for two decades. It was a modest success, enough to keep them going what with the oldest child – troubled, unmarried Sofia – coming in early each morning to scour the place from the crud and spills of the day before. Uncle Henry’s was notable for its beautiful view along the Intercoastal Waterway. When its next door rival, Morgan’s Fish Camp and Fry House, burned down, Frank hired Morgan Moore to assist him and put Morgan’s most popular items on the menu.

Frank had a pile of deferred dreams, but he never seemed to be able to go beyond meeting his family responsibilities. One of those dreams had died when Carson had stolen the beautiful Elizabeth whom Frank had adored in high school.

Carson, his older brother, was much more ambitious. He had pieced together some education and credentials, eventually opening up a financial management firm. Until the economy went south, he was doing well, but then he slipped into pushing hollow new investments to pay the promised income of those already gone bad. He hated himself for running a Ponzi scheme and frantically sought a way to dig out of the hole.

The way comes. An Atlanta-based real estate development company has its eye on the combined properties of Morgan and the Bravos, which include Uncle Henry’s as well as Arla’s dilapidated but imposingly-sized home that Dean had incongruously named Aberdeen. The fear of change depresses Arla and her dependent forty-three year old daughter, and to some extent Frank – so fully identified with Uncle Henry’s.

Hey, the first Publix in Utina was about to open. Why not a waterfront development with a marina, shops, fancy restaurants and residences, and a hotel? Uh-oh, suddenly long-lost Dean is back in town. He must smell the money.

These plot points, however, are only the branches from which the real glory of “Heart of Palm” hangs. That glory involves Ms. Smith’s skill in rendering the natural and cultural environment, the values, and the sensory appeal of this patch of North Florida, drenched in its distinctive history and threatened, perhaps, by homogenization.

Throughout the novel, the author provides finely-shaded portraits of her characters and their relationships. We enter the thoughts of many, and thoroughly realistic conversations allow their voices, which carry their identities, to resonate deep inside of our minds’ ears.

Much of what transpires in Heart of Palm involves blame, forgiveness, and the revelation of secrets that were not very secret after all. Working through this moral scrubland honestly and sincerely is the only way of making a good thing out of the opportunities and challenges that each character faces.

The interaction of character and place, nature and nurture, provides a richness of texture that I found astonishing. All the threats and new chances that change brings only heighten and deepen this tableau in which love takes second place to family. I want to return to Utina, a place I have now briefly visited but have been allowed to know intimately.

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