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Posts Tagged ‘Dorothy Heyward’

Sorry I’ve been away so long. The last week or so I’ve been happily hibernating from the heat, eating lemonade bars and getting lost in books.  I motored through Maine and then went south to Folly Beach. Destination reading, so to speak. (I also solved quite a few mysteries along the way, but that’s a future post).

J. Courtney Sullivan wrote about four women in 2009’s Commencement, rotating perspectives as a quartet of recent Smith College graduates told of their coming of age in the new millenium. In Maine, the four women who tell the story are all members of the Irish-Catholic Kelleher clan of Boston.

Matriarch Alice, 83, and her late husband Daniel built a cottage on the Maine coast where the family has summered for 60 years. All the generations once piled in together on top of one another, but since Daniel’s death a decade ago, the children have divided up the months they’ll spend with their mother. An elderly beauty with a critical tongue, Alice has increasingly turned to alcohol and the church to assauge the guilt she has carried for years.

Eldest daughter Kathleen, 58, is estranged from her difficult mother, having remade herself in her 40s after a painful divorce. She quit drinking and used the money her father left her to move to California with her laid-back boyfriend Arlo, with whom she runs a successful worm farm. She worries about her daughter Maggie, a 32-year-old free-lance writer living in New York who continues to make mistakes with men.

Sister-in-law Ann-Marie is closer than any of them to Alice, and when it appears that Maggie’s plans to spend June in Maine have been cut short, Ann-Marie efficiently rearranges her own life, including babysitting her young grandchildren, and ships her latest dollhouse project to the cottage. That Maggie, hiding a surprise pregnancy, is still in residence hardly disconcerts her. She’s obsessed with perfecting her miniature furnishings while harboring romantic notions about a neighbor.

Sullivan takes her time setting the bucolic scene, while family secrets, grudges and lies simmer in the background. But when all four women end up together, watch out for the fireworks.

Sullivan has a deft hand with memorable set pieces, from Alice’s searing memories to Ann-Marie’s inevitable meltdown. The Kellehers are a family in love with their own mythology, and mothers, daughters and daughter-in-law all confront the ways in which it has shaped their lives as women for better or worse.

At 400 pages, Maine is one of those summer books that you sink into for the duration and finish with a sigh of satisfaction. Dorothea Benton Frank’s Folly Beach is as frothy as its name, a happy holiday of a novel that may set you to humming “Summertime.”

Cate Cooper belts out the tune from the bathtub of the “Porgy House,” the tiny old cottage on Folly where playwrights Dorothy and Dubose Heyward lived in 1934 while collaborating with George Gershwin on what would become “Porgy and Bess.” Like other native Charlestonians, Cate knows it was adapted from Heyward’s play about the city’s Gullah culture, but now she’s more curious about the house’s former residents, leading players in the Charleston Renaissance of the 1920s.

Cate needs something to think about other than her present predicament. She’s gone from riches to rags practically overnight because of her scheming husband’s recent suicide. Rather than move in with her sister Patty, living nearby in New Jersey, Cate retreats to the safe haven of Folly, where her Aunt Daisy raised both girls with the help of her partner Etta. Daisy, whose health issues have increased with age, asks for Cate’s help with her rental house business and installs her in the Porgy House.

This is a familiar plot for Frank’s fans — a woman at mid-life finding herself at a crossroads and turning to her Lowcountry South Carolina roots. Cate is not exactly a merry widow, but she’s happy to be single again when a handsome history professor obligingly appears on the scene. John Risley encourages her research on the Heywards, especially Harvard-educated Dorothy, and Cate decides to wite a play about the playwright.

It’s Cate’s one-woman show about Dorothy that intersperses her own chatty narration and which separates the novel from Frank’s previous best-sellers. The play-within-the-book explores talented Dorothy’s life and her  devotion to her husband, with plenty of period touches and literary name-dropping to lend authenticity.

Cate’s story of family, love and pecan pie, on the other hand, is a Karo-syrupy fairy tale heavy on happy endings. Still, who doesn’t want dessert on vacation?  “Summertime.  . .”

Open Book: I read the digital galley of J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine (Knopf) via NetGalley, and a review copy of Dorothea Benton Frank’s Folly Beach (William Morrow). I first met Dottie about 10 years ago, and we keep in touch via e-mail, Facebook, mutual friends and her sister Lynn on Edisto Beach.

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