November 15, 2010
Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel
2010 Harper Collins
Rating: 4.75/5 (Terrific!)
From Barnes & Noble (Discover Great New Writers):
When Frances accepts an invitation to visit Stiltsville, a community of houses built on pilings in Biscayne Bay, she has no idea that her simple "yes" to a new friend will determine the course of her life for the next two dozen years. Set in Miami from the late '60s to the 1990s, Stiltsville is a sweeping journey seen through the eyes of one woman as she experiences love, motherhood, friendship, hurricanes, racial tension, and finally, a tragic death in slow motion.
In her debut novel, Daniel describes the experiences of three generations in one family whose spiritual heart is centered in a modest bungalow built a few feet above the water. When Frances meets and marries Dennis, she learns to live her life on the water, from bay to ocean to everglade to bayou. She navigates through it all—infidelity, empty-nest syndrome, and debilitating illness—sometimes with grace and humor, sometimes with anger and bitterness, but always with the same people by her side.
Daniel excels in capturing the flavor and decadence of Miami as it became a multicultural hotbed. In Stiltsville, she has woven factual events into Frances's life from a tumultuous period that witness racial beatings, the cocaine wars, and Hurricane Andrew. The result is a riveting novel filled with pathos.
Marisa de los Santos. Anna Quindlen. Kate Maloy. Elizabeth Berg. Jeanne Ray. These talented authors have all written beautiful novels that take the ordinary and make it extraordinary. Their books explore the everyday life of mothers, wives and friends, depicting scenes of domestic life with believable situations and authentic voices. These "comfort" reads are the sort that don't involve wars or murders. There are no car chases, no mysteries to solve, no supernatural disturbances. They may not be the sort of read my husband would enjoy, but I love them! I love the sense of familiarity to my own life. I love the sense of affirmation I feel after reading a passage about the dynamics between mothers and daughters. And I love to read about long-standing marriages, full of the predictable ebb and flow of love and happiness. Daniel has written a tender story that is sure to satisfy those who share my enthusiasm for women's fiction, as well as those who enjoy reading anything set near the ocean, as I do.
As for my new hometown, I'd fallen quickly and surely in love with it. I loved to drive through the dense neighborhoods with my car windows down and smell the rotting sweetness of a ripening mango tree. I loved to eavesdrop on the loud conversations of the ladies at the deli counter, ferreting out select phrases using the lazy Spanish I'd acquired over the years. I loved the lychees and star fruit that fell into my yard over the neighbor's fence, and I loved the bright bougainvillea that dropped its papery pink petals onto my lawn. I loved the rusty barges loaded with stolen bicycles that plodded down the Miami River and out to sea. I loved the half-dozen chilly February nights, all the windows in the house open and the fireplace going. I loved the limestone and the coral rock, the fountains and the ocean and the winding blue canals. I loved the giant banyans and the dense wet mangroves and the gumbo-limbo trees and the many-sized, many-shaped palms. I loved the pelicans and manatees and stone crabs and storms and even the thick, damp summers.
Miami is the only place in this country where Stiltsville could exist, and for a while I had the good fortune of spending time there.
I lived in Miami through scandals and riots, through dozens of tropical storms and one devastating hurricane, through the Mariel boat lift and the cocaine cowboys. Outside Florida, I never met anyone else who lived in Miami or cared to, or even anyone who is not somewhat surprised to hear that I lived there for half of my life. Perhaps what is still most surprising to me about Miami is that in spite of its lurid excesses and unreal beauty and unreal ugliness, it was possible for me, a girl from Georgia, to create a life there. Overall, an excellent life. A life I knew even as I was living it, I would miss when it came to an end.
We'd been unlucky and now it seemed we might become lucky again. Sometimes I think the guiding principles of good parenting are luck and circumstance. And sometimes when I'm feeling pompous I think there is no such thing as luck, that Margo's strength comes from our steerage. The night she fled Trisha Weintraub's house, I'd told her while she cried that no one should have the power to make her feel bad or ugly or embarrassed, that she was the one to decide who could hurt her feelings and who could not. I was just filling the air, of course; she knew well enough that this wasn't true. I hoped, however, that at some point she'd learn what is true: that although we like to believe we are our own little islands, capable of protecting ourselves as well as sheltering and welcoming others, this is never really the case. Still, we must behave as if it is, and hope that we can withstand the wills of other people more than we cannot.
"I thought the last time at Stiltsville was the last time," I said. We'd skied and Dennis and Margo had fished off the dock. It had been five years since the state of Florida had declared Biscayne Bay a national monument and began pushing for an end to private ownership of the stilt houses. Marcus Beck, a trial lawyer, had negotiated a deal guaranteeing that current residents could keep our houses until the year 1999—after that, Stiltsville would belong to the state. Since the decision, we'd gone out every possible weekend.
"There's no last time," said Dennis.
I had a feeling that very soon there would be a tear in the fabric of my life, an enormous divide. On one side would be the time I moved through and things I did and the people I saw, and on the other side would be a great expanse of black time where Margo lived her life, and she and I would move parallel to each other like cars in different lanes, allowing only passing glimpses. I had to remind myself that, strangely enough, this was the way it was meant to go. They grow up, they move away.
I first read about Stiltsville on Kay's blog and after reading her wonderful review, knew it was my kind of book. Thanks for sending me your copy, Kay. I loved it and can't wait for the author to write another!
Final thoughts: When the frigid, dark days of winter become unbearable, I'll pull this book from the shelf to read a second time, warming my chilled bones vicariously through Daniel's beautiful prose, dreaming of the day when, like Frances, I can walk around the house in nothing but a pair of shorts, tank top and sandals. Now I understand why so many retirees settle in Florida!
Go here for more information about Stiltsville.