Harper (2010), Hardcover (ISBN 0061963070 / 9780061963070)
Fiction, 320 pages
Source: Provided by publisher
Reason for Reading: Participation in online book club discussion (today), hosted by Gayle at Everyday I Write the Book
Opening Lines: “On a Sunday morning in late July, at the end of my first-ever visit to Miami, I took a cab from my hotel to Snapper Creek marina to join a woman named Marse Heiger, whom I’d met the day before.”
Book Description, via the publisher’s website: One sunny morning in 1969, near the end of her first trip to Miami, twenty-six-year-old Frances Ellerby finds herself in a place called Stiltsville, a community of houses built on pilings in the middle of Biscayne Bay. On the dock of a stilt house, with the dazzling skyline in the distance and the unknowable ocean beneath her, she meets the house’s owner, Dennis DuVal—and a new future reveals itself.
Turning away from her quiet, predictable life back home, Frances moves to Miami to be with Dennis. Over time, she earns the confidence of his wild-at-heart sister and wins the approval of his oldest friend. Frances and Dennis marry and have a child—but rather than growing complacent about their good fortune, they continue to face the challenges of intimacy and the complicated city they call home.
Stiltsville is the family’s island oasis—until suddenly it’s gone, and Frances is forced to figure out how to make her family work on dry land. Against a backdrop of lush tropical beauty, Frances and Dennis struggle with the mutability of love and Florida’s weather, as well as temptation, chaos, and disappointment.
With Stiltsville, Susanna Daniel weaves the beauty, violence, and humanity of Miami’s coming-of-age with an enduring story of a marriage.
Comments: When Frances Ellerby makes her first visit to Miami, Florida in the summer of 1969, she expects to spend the weekend seeing a little of the city and attending the wedding of a college friend, returning to her life in Atlanta after it’s all over. Weddings have a way of changing people’s lives, though. Frances meets her own future husband that weekend, and discovers the place where she’ll spend the next twenty-five years of her life.
Susanna Daniel’s first novel is the story of a marriage and a family, growing and changing along with the city around them. Miami began to become the city it is today during the 1970s and 1980s, shifting direction when it was ravaged by Hurricane Andrew in August 1992, but never going back to what it was. “What it was” is symbolized by Stiltsville, a collection of houses built on pilings about five miles offshore in Biscayne Bay, reachable only by boat. Frances meets her husband at one of those houses; his family has owned it for years, and it soon becomes a constant in her life, as well as that of her daughter and the couple’s friends. (Stiltsville is a real place – what’s left of it, anyway.)
I had a little trouble getting into Stiltsville – the opening of the book felt a little choppy to me, and I kept wondering if I was missing something. The author writes in Frances’ voice, and I wasn’t sure I understood why she chose to emphasize some of the details she did at first. However, I adjusted fairly quickly, and had a hard time putting the book down once I did. Daniel covers a lot of narrative ground in a relatively short novel – just over 300 pages – and conveys the dramatic effects of both interpersonal and environmental events on relatively ordinary lives. Much of it works because she’s using an effective storyteller; Frances is flawed, sometimes frustrating, and authentic, growing more so as she ages over the span of the novel. And while there are hints about how the story will end, the specific direction in which it turned took me by surprise.
Among the details emphasized throughout the story are those that place it very specifically in South Florida; those narrative choices are understandable, and significant. I lived in Florida for ten years (not that far south, though – I attended high school and college in the Tampa Bay area), and Daniel’s descriptions of tropical foliage and equally tropical humidity, smooth, flat beaches, homes on canals with boats docked behind them, and year-round swimsuit weather and bright clothing evoked it all clearly. (A backyard wedding with the bride in a lime-green sundress and the groom wearing a guayabera is quintessentially Florida.) The sense of place and Frances’ narrative voice came together and made Stiltsville work for me. I think it would appeal to readers who enjoy realistic, contemporary women’s/domestic fiction, and it’s a fine debut for Susanna Daniel.
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