The Beach Trees
By Karen White
Publisher: NAL Trade
Release Date: May 3, 2011
Another convention of Southern literature is an awareness of the past and its intrusion on the present. White shows this intrusion with all her characters, native Southerner and outsider alike. Julie Holt’s life is shaped by an event in her past. Seventeen years ago, her younger sister, Chelsea, disappeared on the watch of twelve-year-old Julie, who watched her family splinter as her mother devoted her life to finding Chelsea. Since her mother’s death ten years ago, Julie has been consumed with doing what her mother could not do. But it is not her own past that brings her to Biloxi; it is rather the past of her friend Monica Guidry, dead of congenital heart defect at 28. Monica, who was estranged from her family, leaves Julie a beach house in Biloxi and the guardianship of Beau, Monica’s five-year-old son. When caring for Beau causes Julie to lose her job at a New York auction house, she sees the house in Biloxi as her only option.
The beach house provides no sanctuary, however; it was destroyed by Katrina. Julie’s resources are thin when a mysterious painting leads her to Monica’s grandmother, Aimee, and brother, Trey. Aimee persuades Julie to stay at the family home to give Beau a chance to know his mother’s family and encourages Julie and the reluctant Trey to rebuild River Song, the beach house. Julie, believing that Beau needs his family and intrigued by the painting that links her family to the Guidrys, agrees. The painting, the work of Julie’s great-grandfather, is a portrait of Caroline Guidry, Trey’s great-grandmother, another Guidry woman who disappeared.
From this point on, White seamlessly weaves together narratives of past and present. Aimee shares her story with Julie, bringing to life the beautiful, unconventional Caroline, her controlling husband, and their two sons, both of whom Aimee loved. As they work together to rebuild River Song, Julie’s adversarial relationship with Trey gradually transforms to a partnership, a friendship, and eventually something more. Secrets long buried are revealed, and questions about Monica’s disappearance, as well as Caroline’s, are answered.
Karen White has been an autobuy author for me since I read The Memory of Water in 2008 and immediately tracked down her backlist. I love her layered characters with their tangled relationships, her evocation of a region I know by heart, her lucid prose with its lyrical passages, and the Southern Gothic touches that flavor but do not define her books. The Beach Trees contains all of these things and more. It is the story of a woman’s journey from shadow to substance, from rootless seeker to one grounded in her place, from a woman owned by the past to one eagerly anticipating the future. It is also a love story—love for a child, a man, and a home. But The Beach Trees is not only Julie’s story. It is also the story of family and place, the story of survivors. Early in the novel, Julie asks Aimee why people rebuild after a hurricane rather than leaving. Aimee responds:
“Because this is home.” She waited to see if the words registered with me, but I just looked back at her, not understanding at all.
After a deep breath, she looked up at a tall oak tree beyond the garden, its leaves still green against the early October sky, the limbs now thick with foliage. “Because the water recedes, and the sun comes out, and the trees grow back. Because” — she spread her hands, indicated the garden and the tree and, I imagined, the entire peninsula of Biloxi — “because we’ve learned that great tragedy gives us opportunities for great kindness. It’s like a needed reminder that the human spirit is alive and well despite all evidence to the contrary.” She lowered her hands to her sides. “I figured I wasn’t dead, so I must not be done.”
I give this book my highest recommendation.