Thursday, May 19, 2011

Guest Review - - The Beach Trees

The Beach Trees
By Karen White
Publisher: NAL Trade
Release Date: May 3, 2011

Karen White calls her fiction “grit lit,” women’s fiction with a strong Southern accent, but in the case of her latest release, The Beach Trees, “grit lit” may serve as well to describe the fortitude of her characters, major and secondary, who prove themselves survivors in the face of profound loss. Sense of place is high on the list of qualities that define Southern fiction generally, and it’s high on the list of things that White does exceedingly well. Her descriptions of New Orleans and Biloxi are so richly evocative that the reader can almost feel the steamy heat, smell the water, and see the scars left by hurricanes and an oil spill. But place is more than mere setting in this novel; it is also a character, as tenacious and resilient as the people who call this region home.

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.



  1. Southern Grit..that is a terrific name for this genre. It reminds me a great deal of the writing of Pat Conroy (The Prince of Tides, Beach Music) Sounds like an interesting book and the review is on target.

  2. Highest recommendation works for me. I had not heard of THE BEACH TREES before this, so thank you for bringing it to my attention.

  3. Janga

    What a great review I really love the sound of this book

    Have Fun

  4. fsbuchler, this book is getting rave reviews and it debuted at #15 on the NYT Trade Paperback Bestseller List. People are discovering what some of us have known for years: that Karen White is a fantastic author!

  5. Marybelle, if Janga gives a book her highest recommendation that's all I ever need. She's never steered me wrong.

  6. Helen, hope you give this book a try. I have my copy and can't wait to carve out a little time to enjoy it.

  7. FYI...Karen White and fellow Georgia author Wendy Wax were the guests of honor at an author luncheon and book signing I attended this week. I'll be blogging about the event soon and giving away a signed copy of THE BEACH TREES so stay tuned to the blog for a chance to win!

  8. Karen, is a wonderful writer, and THE BEACH TREES sounds like another rich and captivating read.

    Thanks for another great review, Janga!

  9. I love it when an author I've followed for years writes a book that brings them a new, larger audience. I watched it happen with Robyn Carr when Virgin River was published. I'm hoping The Beach Trees will be that book for Karen White. She is, as PJ said, a majorly gifted writer, and TBT is an extraordinary book.

  10. Great review, Janga! I have never read her work, but seems like that will be changing :-)

  11. I have not seen this book before but love the cover, its beautiful and it sound really good. Will be looking for it.

  12. Wow, wow, wow!! This book sounds terrific, Janga. I look forward to reading it!

  13. If Janga says it's good, I believe her. :) Thanks for another recommendation. I'm looking forward to it.


  14. My husband and I went to New Orleans this past March. It was our first trip there, but it will not be our last. There is a definite feel and flavor to the region. I have not yet read anything by Karen White, but from the sound of the this review, that is something I must remedy.
    Thanks for another helpful review.