Don’t let the cover of Laura Lee Smith’s luminous first novel fool you. HEART OF PALM isn’t some vapid beach read full of cheating husbands and damsels in distress (though there is a husband who strays, and the three leading ladies aren’t the most well-adjusted bunch). And while the Florida drawl and Southern charm do run deep, none of the characters are flighty or mawkish, nor can they be accused of employing passive aggression to win their arguments. Instead, HEART OF PALM’s leading family --- the Bravo clan --- tells it like it is, from their hardscrabble beginnings through moments full of excruciating beauty and insufferable loss.
The Bravos make their home in Utina, a small, broken-down town filled with dollar stores and mom-and-pop shops --- an unassuming blip on the map of muggy Northern Florida. There’s Arla, the family matriarch --- a once-statuesque redhead who abandoned her upper crust St. Augustine family when she was barely 18 to marry the rebellious and handsome Dean Bravo and move into Aberdeen, a dilapidated three-story house on the banks of the Intracoastal Waterway. There’s their eldest and only daughter Sofia --- unmarried and high-strung with a fiercely independent streak --- who moved back in with Arla after Dean left seeking greener pastures (or more welcoming bar stools); Carson, a hot-shot St. Augustine investor and the eldest of the three boys whose “ability to drink anyone under the table, once a point of pride, was now becoming one of those things, like mullet haircuts and cow tipping, that wasn’t so funny anymore”; and the terminally reliable Frank, who runs the family restaurant down the road and harbors a long-squelched soft spot for the wife of his undeserving and philandering older brother.
"To match the expertly plotted...and tonally diverse...story, Smith’s prose fizzes with flavor.... It’s this artfully balanced mixture of creativity and craft that make HEART OF PALM so undoubtedly rewarding."
There’s also the youngest Bravo boy, 15-year-old Will --- “a boy so torn between allegiances, so eager to please everyone, so catastrophically kind and loving,” who, plied with booze by his father and abandoned by his two brothers at the tail end of a night of rabble-rousing, died tragically on the 4th of July after being struck by an oncoming car.
Following an attention-grabbing prologue detailing Arla and Dean’s brief courtship and calamitous honeymoon that ends in injury, the novel opens 40 years later with Utina teetering on the cusp of sweeping change. A puffed-up developer from Atlanta has approached the Bravos to buy their land, intending to tear down Aberdeen and Frank’s restaurant to make way for a ritzy condo complex and bustling marina. But despite the promise of millions, the Bravos are torn. Carson --- whose business is in shambles after a Ponzi scheme he orchestrated threatens to ruin not only his credibility but also his marriage --- wants the deal to go through. Reclusive Arla and a more precautious Frank, however, are more resistant to digging up their roots. Then, when broken and battered Dean returns after two decades to try to force Arla’s hand, the decision of whether to hold out or sell --- remain the same or give in to progress --- becomes even murkier.
But HEART OF PALM isn’t only about characters coping with inevitable change in a “place on its way to becoming something else.” It’s also about guilt --- and forgiveness. Dean, Carson and Frank struggle to face up to their shared role in Will’s death, and it’s Smith’s delicate handling of the law of cause and effect, before and after (“Frank thinks of Will, and he looks at Carson, and a terrible knowledge passes between them, binds them for an instant more tightly than they have ever been bound before and then splits them like fission, their atoms spinning apart, away and out of control into the universe forever.”), that deserves mention. Abandoning Will to his fate is none of the characters’ fault, per se, but the notion that irreparable consequences so often accompany reckless actions is powerfully on display in much of the spoken and unspoken dialogue between Carson and Frank: (Carson: “Why did you tell me to leave Will?” Frank: “Why did you listen?”), and in Dean’s assessment of his failed marriage (“You can give a gift to someone, and make a person happy. But then you can take that gift away, and leave her hollow and cold inside. And what was worse, Dean wondered, the giving or the taking away? How do you pay off a debt like that?”).
Above all else, HEART OF PALM is a book about stubborn love and the bonds between family, and it’s to Smith’s credit that every character --- even Dean and Carson at their most selfish --- comes across at times as self-sacrificing and, therefore, human. Carson wants his marriage to work, despite his dalliances, and even Arla --- having given up on Dean years ago --- realizes her flawed husband’s place in her development (“He’d been a bitter medicine. But he’d brought her to herself, made her what she was today, for better or for worse …”).
To match the expertly plotted (all elements introduced at the beginning are addressed --- some expectedly, some surprisingly --- by the book’s finale) and tonally diverse (touching! hilarious! witty! bittersweet!) story, Smith’s prose fizzes with flavor (“her thighs felt swollen and confined inside her Bermuda shorts, like fat bratwursts in casing”). It’s this artfully balanced mixture of creativity and craft that make HEART OF PALM so undoubtedly rewarding.
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on April 5, 2013