Paige left, leaving Emmy clutching the jar of beach sand from a place she'd never been. Emmy closed her eyes, feeling the warmth of it again, imagining she smelled salt air and some other nameless thing: a heavy, pungent odor of sun-warmed earth and stagnant water. And she imagined something else, too: a shimmering in the air that hinted of unsaid good-byes and unpaid guilt. Or maybe it was the scent of new beginnings. The thought sent a shock of fear and anticipation through her that lifted the skin from her neck. It reminded her again of the wind in the bottle tree the night she'd become a widow, and as she sat down in front of the box of books, she began to think in possibilities. (from On Folly Beach, page 30)
On Folly Beach is a beautiful novel by Karen White, with two stories from different eras told side-by-side and connected by the love two women share for the written word. The book opens in Indiana in 2009, with Emmy Hamilton waking up to the knowledge that she is a widow. Her husband, Ben, is a soldier serving in Afghanistan, and Emmy has a supernatural gift that means she knows he has been killed before the military delivers the heart-breaking news. After grieving for several months, Emmy's mother convinces her to move to Folly Beach, S.C., and purchase Folly's Finds, a local bookstore, as a way to start rebuilding her life. Emmy decides to follow her mother's advice after discovering that several books her mother ordered from the store contain cryptic love letters. She is consumed by the need to uncover the story behind these notes, but the one person who has the answers is a hard nut to crack.
Between the chapters about Emmy and her struggle to overcome her grief are chapters set in wartime Folly Beach in 1942 and 1943. Maggie, the original owner of Folly's Finds, is raising her 9-year-old sister, Lulu, who spends much of her time building beautiful bottle trees, reading Nancy Drew mysteries, spying on her family, and pining for Jim, who died in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Jim's widow, Cat, is Maggie and Lulu's beautiful -- and difficult -- cousin. Cat's desire for attention from men, her need to feel loved in the absence of her parents, and her jealousy of Maggie's relationship with Peter -- a Polish immigrant who constantly travels to sell products from his father's factory as part of the war effort -- turn all of their lives upside down.
It soon becomes obvious that Emmy's and Maggie's stories will intersect, and alternating between the stories makes it easy to keep track of all the characters. However, given that the most of the details of Maggie's story are presented to readers long before Emmy figures them out, I kept hoping that the pace would pick up. It started to drag a bit toward the middle, but I think I felt that way because Emmy's story didn't grab me as much as Maggie's. That's not to say that Emmy isn't an interesting character or that her story isn't compelling; it's just that White fictionalizes an aspect of World War II of which I was previously unaware: the presence of German U-boats off the coast of the United States and Nazi spies on U.S. soil. White also brilliantly sets the scene; you can see the soldiers and the young girls dancing on the pier, the atmosphere charged with both excitement, fear, and sadness as U.S. involvement in the war picks up.
In the present, however, White does a great job with character evolution, particularly with Emmy and Lulu. The adult Lulu is harsh and comes off as mean, but alternating from the past to the present gives readers a better idea of how she ticks. (And you can bet I Googled bottle trees to better visualize Lulu's beautiful creations.) Most of all, I appreciated the ending of Emmy's story because it didn't feel forced or over-the-top for a recently widowed woman. In short, it just felt right.
On Folly Beach is the fourth book I've enjoyed by White (read my reviews of The House on Tradd Street, The Lost Hours, and The Girl on Legare Street). Her writing is beautiful, her characters are authentic, she really knows how to set the scene, and there's always an eccentric character to add some entertainment. You can be sure that I'll read more of her work in the future.
TLC Book Tours for allowing me to take part in the On Folly Beach tour. To visit the other tour stops, click here.
Disclosure: I received a copy of On Folly Beach from Penguin for review purposes. I am an Amazon affiliate.
© 2010, Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not copy or reproduce content without permission.