Monday, May 10, 2010

Review: On Folly Beach by Karen White

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.

Thanks to 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.


Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

Anna this is such a great review. I have seen this book around and think it sounds good!

Lisa (Southern Girl Reads) said...

I absolutely LOVED this book and your review was fantastic!

Sullivan McPig said...

Great review.
Sounds like a book I should write down so I can buy it as a birthday present for a friend.

Missy B. said...

I'll have to add this one to my wish list. I am reading The House on Tradd Street right now, and loving it! Karen White is a wonderful author. Thanks for the review, Anna!

Serena said...

Fantastic review for a book I just started reading.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I missed out on the Tradd Street hoopla (and yes I know there is more to come, so I'd better get my butt in gear), so I did jump at the chance to review this one. I really liked it, enjoyed the beach and the drama and the bookstore and the love notes. It was such a pleasurable read!

Staci said...

I loved this one too. And like you had to google the bottle trees to see what they looked like. I want one!! Great review!

Steph said...

This sounds wonderful, Anna. I am a sucker for character-driven novels and I like the way you described the intertwined stories.

bermudaonion said...

I'm reading this book right now, so I'm glad to see you liked it so much.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

excellent review Anna. I like this author and hope to read this one when I get my hands on it :)

Melody said...

Great review, Anna!
I'm currently reading this book and enjoying it! I love Karen's writing style. :)

Suko said...

Anna, what a wonderful review! This sounds quite good.

Alice said...

Another lovely review on Karen White's book! How can I resist this after reading so many wonderful things said about it. :D

trish said...

Wow! Such a great review. I really have a feeling for the book but don't feel like I know the whole story, which is just perfect. :)

I think this book sounds great and probably like something my book club would like. I think I'll recommend it to them!

Thanks for being on this tour!

Iliana said...

Great review Anna! Sounds like I'm missing out by not picking up one of White's books. Going on my list!

Unknown said...

This book sounds wonderful aside from the fact that I tend to be a sucker for any book's story that includes a bookstore and books. Your review is wonderful and assured me of the need to read Karen White's new book. So please enter me in your giveaway!

Thank you!

~ Amy

Marg said...

I want this book! I have only read one book from her, but I really enjoyed it, and all the reviews I have read of this one have just made me really want to get my hands on this one.

Literary Feline said...

Thank you for your great review, Anna. I love Karen White's writing and although I wasn't blown away by her paranormal series, I do want to try some of her other books.

Anna said...

Sheila: Thanks! I hope you get to read it.

Lisa: Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it, too.

Sullivan McPig: Definitely!

Missy B.: I hope you get a chance to read this one. I really enjoy Karen White's novels.

Serena: Thanks!

Sandy: I hope you get a chance to read the Tradd Street books, though I've enjoyed her stand-alone books more.

Staci: I want one, too!

Steph: I hope you give this one a try!

Bermudaonion: Looking forward to your thoughts on it.

Diane: Thanks! I really hope you read it. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

Melody: Thanks! White has such an easy writing style, of which I'm very fond.

Suko: Thanks!

Alice: You really should give it a try!

Trish: My pleasure!

Iliana: I hope you get a chance to read one of her books soon.

Amy: There's a lot of literary references in the book, so I'm sure you'd enjoy it.

Marg: I hope you get to read it soon. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Literary Feline: I like the paranormal books well enough, but I enjoy her stand-alone novels more.