Thursday, June 28, 2012

Book Review: Porch Lights by Dorothea Benton Frank

Southern literature queen Dorothea Benton Frank will be signing Porch Lights in Nashville tonight at Ann Patchett's bookstore Parnassus Books, and I really wish I were going. Last week I missed seeing Mary Kay Andrews at Parnassus, but I was comforted by the fact that I had previously met her. I've longed to meet Frank since adoring her first novel, Sullivan's Island. I'm actually going to be in Nashville tonight, but attending another event. My best girl friends and I are going to see Sarah McLachlan and the Nashville Symphony at the Schermerhorn. So I suppose I can be soothed by that.

A bit about the book: Army nurse Jackie Britt McMullen is home from multiple tours of duty when her husband, firefighter Jimmy McMullen, is killed while fighting a housefire. She and their ten-year-old son, Charlie, struggle to keep themselves above water in their home in Brooklyn, but Charlie slips further and further from Jackie.

In Porch Lights, Jackie decides that a trip to her family's home on Sullivan's Island is necessary for Charlie's well-being, even if residing in the same home with her mother for weeks on end may kill her. Annie Britt, Jackie's mother and a southern belle to the nth degree, thrills in her new mission -- providing healing for her grandson and daughter. She takes on their visit as her personal mission, redecorating bedrooms and planning menus. But she and Jackie haven't agreed on much of anything for years. How will they survive an entire summer together?

Why you want to read it: Frank is simply one of the best writers of southern lit in the game. Her novels are set in South Carolina's Low Country, a land with a rich history, beautiful sights, and good food. She incorporates all three into her novels, and Porch Lights is no exception. She also incorporates Edgar Allen Poe's time on Sullivan's Island into the pages of the novel, as Annie Britt is a self-taught expert on the subject. The characters visit Poe's Tavern for good eats, as well as Fort Moultrie, where Poe was stationed. Lines from Poe's short story "The Gold-bug" begin each chapter.

Frank is a master storyteller, and part of that skill lies in her ability to create dynamic characters who readers fall for despite their flaws. I enjoy her stories because I care deeply for the characters she creates. Jackie and Annie are main characters with many issues, difficult traits which cement their humanity. Jackie is stubborn when faced with her mother's efforts to help; Annie, for her part, is both stubborn and extraordinarily self-righteous. But the mother-daughter duo is also full of love for one another and for young Charlie. They both want what's best for their family, even while they don't agree on what that is. 

The side characters in Porch Lights are delightful, as well. Annie's neighbors add a sense of community to the  novel, as Jackie and Charlie are welcomed with open arms to their home-away-from-home. A handsome doctor provides a hint of romance, while best friend Deb shows readers another side of Annie. Buster (or Guster, as Charlie calls him), Annie's estranged husband and Jackie's father, brings comedy to the novel and is the perfect foil for Annie.

The bottom line: Told in alternating voices (Jackie's and Annie's), Porch Lights is a love letter to both complicated family relationships and South Carolina's Low Country. The novel celebrates both equally, in a tale that pulls at readers' heartstrings. I long to meet the characters and visit the beautiful island where they live. At its heart, Porch Lights is a novel that will remind us how important the people and places we love are.

About the author: Dorothea Benton Frank is the author of twelve previous novels, including a Christmas novella, The Christmas Pearl. All twelve are set on various islands and cities up and down the South Carolina coast, and all are a delight to read. She was born on Sullivan's Island, and now resides in both New Jersey and the South Carolina. You can read more about her and sample excerpts from her novels by visiting her website. You can also follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.

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