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Posts Tagged ‘The Smart One’

smartoneJennifer Close’s first-rate first book Girls in White Dresses came out before Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls, but both writers clearly capture the humor and heartbreak of 20something characters trying on different selves in the  post-college years. Now, just as ABC preps its new sitcom How to Live With Your Parents (For the Rest of your Life), Close’s smart second novel, The Smart One (Knopf, digital galley via edelweiss), hones in  on adult siblings moving in with Mom and Dad.

The Coffey family, headed by boomers Weezy and Will, is a nicely feathered nest in suburban Philadelphia, but when Weezy urges her three children to join them for the annual week at the shore she doesn’t realize their visit home will extend for months. Debt-ridden Claire, 29, moves back from New York following a broken engagement, takes a temp job and takes up with an old high school boyfriend living in his parents’ basement. Socially inept Martha, older by a year, is already in residence, having long ago left nursing to work as a  J.Crew manager. Tired of folding shirts, she makes a tentative move back toward nursing by becoming a caretaker for an elderly man. Happy-go-lucky Max is off at college with his beautiful girlfriend Chloe until unforseen circumstances force them into co-habiting at the Coffey’s. So who’s the smart one now?

Close easily moves among the perspectives of the four female characters, whose hopes, habits and misgivings make them as real and relateable as your own family members. Claire realizes she hasn’t lived up to her parents’ expectations or her own. “It was like when you were younger and believed that it was just a matter of time before you would become a gymnastic gold medalist or a Broadway star. But then you got to be a certain age, and you realized that the gymnasts at the Olympics were younger than you, and you couldn’t sing either; and just like that visions of being a balance beam superstar or playing Annie on stage were gone.”

palmIf the Coffeys are recognizably contemporary and realistic, the members of the Bravo family in Laura Lee Smith’s first book Heart of Palm (Grove/Atlantic, digital galley via NetGalley) are the kind of larger-than life characters you meet in the pages of a Southern novel. And although the story takes place in present-day,  excepting the fabulous first section describing a courtship 40 years ago, the Bravos seem as stuck in time as their hometown of Utina in backwater Northeast Florida.

Once famous for palms and moonshine, Utina is swampy, scraggly, struggling. Middle-aged Frank Bravo long ago put his dreams on hold to run the family fish camp restaurant and local watering hole, while his 62-year-old mother Arla and 40-year-old sister Sofia have the uneasy co-existence you’d expect of two tall, temperamental red-headed women. The piano stuck in the front hallway of the family home is the result of their  latest battle of wills. Father Dean, the bad-boy Bravo whom Arla fell for, took off years ago. Elder brother Carson has escaped to nearby St. Augustine, where he’s running a Ponzi scheme from his investment firm. He’s married to Elizabeth, the love of Frank’s life. Another brother, Will, died 20 years ago, and the Bravos never got over it.

Now, though, past, present and future collide when developers make an offer for the Bravo land because of its proximity to the Intracoastal Waterway. The promise of money and change causes family members to ponder their ties to the land and Bravo ways; some see the offer as a solution, while others can’t get their heads around it.

Smith takes her own sweet time telling the tale, lovingly describing the rural Cracker landscape. In spite of its outsized characters and their somewhat forced eccentricities, Heart of Palm is more dramedy than sitcom. Think of a Florida version of The Descendants, which was a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings before it was a movie.

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