Heart of Palm

By Laura Lee Smith

(Grove/Atlantic, $25, 496 pages)

Who is this author?

Laura Lee Smith’s talent was recognized a few years back when her short fiction was selected by guest editor Amy Hempel for the anthology, “New Stories from the South 2010.” She also has written for The Florida Review, Natural Bridge, Bayou and other journals. Smith lives in Florida, where she taught creative writing at Flagler College and works as an advertising copywriter. You can learn more about her at her website, www.lauraleesmith.com

What is this book about?

Small-town life in northeastern Florida – a mixture of inexorable decay and burgeoning development – is chronicled through the story of the Bravo family, which owns a restaurant and a falling-apart, Spanish moss-bedecked house. The family is undergoing changes, just like the town of Utina, their home. Utina was once the site of thriving businesses that fashioned Palm Sunday crosses and moonshine, but now it’s a backwater. Yet opportunity is about to come knocking —  and knocking things over — with a multi-million dollar offer for their property. How Frank Bravo and his quarreling mom and sister, both tall, both stubborn as mules and both redheaded, meet these new challenges and deal with unresolved old family problems is what makes this story fun to read.

Why you’ll like it:

Reviewers are comparing Smith’s style to those of Anne Tyler and Fannie Flagg, which signals good reading. Praised for her wit and good-natured creation of wacky characters, Smith makes this a family saga underpinned by genuine concerns about the pluses and perils of growth, a familiar dilemma to readers everywhere.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “Independence Day is a turning point for the Bravo family of small-town Utina on Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway. It’s the day they must consider a multimillion-dollar offer for the formerly backwoods, now valuable, land surrounding the family restaurant and their adjacent home. For the contentious brood’s matriarch, 62–year-old Arla, the deal would mean ending the reclusive life she’s led since her feckless husband Dean decamped two decades ago. For her emotionally volatile daughter, Sofia, it would mean losing her home. For Carson, the eldest son, the windfall could cover the Ponzi scheme he’s been running out of his St. Augustine investment firm, while for middle son Frank, the restaurant manager, it might mean a new beginning with Carson’s wife, Elizabeth. For all of them, accepting the offer would involve leaving the place where the youngest brother, Will, died tragically 20 years ago on July 4, the victim of his father’s irresponsibility and his brothers’ jealousy. The Bravos, once notorious Utina badasses, find their adult ties of guilt and regret beginning to frazzle as long-dormant resentments emerge. Smith’s debut novel exudes authenticity ….Writing with agility and empathy, Smith ends this atmospheric family saga on a note of reconciliation and forgiveness.”

“[A] fine, funny first novel . . . about loss—breathtaking, harrowing loss and how it can be withstood—and the power of family to shoulder the burden and find forgiveness. . . . Smith . . . excels at bringing this north Florida hamlet to life. Her dialogue is pitch-perfect, her landscapes fragrant with jasmine and yellow pine, and she eloquently evokes the mixture of tenderness and callousness essential to small-town relationships. . . . In the end—which comes with a delightful twist—the guilty pleasure of Heart of Palm is its steadfast tangle of rage and grief and love, a heaping dose of Southern soul with a whole lot of chutzpah thrown in,” says Gina Webb in an Atlanta Journal Constitution review.

Library Journal says: “…Reminiscent of the works of John Irving, with its close-knit but oddball family, weird tragedy at regular intervals and its very dark sense of humor, this is an engrossing and rewarding read.”

Kirkus Reviews says:  “Amiable debut novel of life in the nonglitzy part of Florida, the swampy confines of the Georgia borderlands. Utina is a definitive backwater, literally. But it’s close enough to Jacksonville and the interstate to be attractive as the site for potential development, a prospect that makes some of its oddball mix of residents very, very happy. From the best family around, Arla Bolton–she of the mangled foot, wherein hangs a tale–went off years before and married Dean Bravo, proving that good girls love bad boys and that, as her mother archly observes, “[l]ove won’t be enough.” Sure enough, years later, shiftless Dean now smells money in the air. He and Arla, meanwhile, have begat a far-flung family that, as one member puts it, is a “frigging pack of oddballs and failures for whom he’d been wrestling with shame and ambivalence his entire life.” …In a slowly, gently unfolding comedy of manners, Smith skillfully sets multiple stories in motion, most, it seems, designed to showcase the vanity of human wishes. Smith is a kind and understanding creator, and even the most venal of her characters, we see, is just trying to get by–and usually not succeeding. In the end, Smith overlaps territory John Sayles explored in Sunshine State, but with a more generous sense of our foibles. It’s a promising start–and a lot of fun.”

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library has a copy of “Heart of Palm” for you to borrow.

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