"Nothing monumental happened --- except the one monumental thing that was happening, slowly and swiftly at the same time, all the time." Although these words come toward the end of the book and refer to something else entirely, they describe perfectly the quiet and wonderful love story within these pages as confided by Frances Ellerby. In 1969, she tells us that she and her new friend, Marse Heiger, have plans during her first visit to Miami.
With Marse manning the boat, the two young women head out of the marina. Frances marvels at the scenery as they travel out to where she can see just sea and sky. Finally, they reach their destination: 14 houses perched on cement pillars above the water of the bay. At a red house with white shutters, Marse docks the boat. This little gathering of homes is known as Stiltsville, and it has quite an interesting history. Frances is fascinated but is also interested in the two young men meeting them. Marse hopes that Frances and her brother Kyle will strike up a romance. She informs Frances that Kyle's friend, Dennis DuVal, is hers.
Except that is not the way it works out. As the four of them figure out how to view (and possibly capture and relocate) an electric eel living under the house, unmistakable sparks fly between Dennis and Frances. Inevitably, it seems, Frances must hurt her new friend because it appears destined that they will be together.
Six months after Frances meets Dennis, she stands in his parents' house. Through the window, she watches Dennis speak with his father. She feels certain that they are discussing his plan to propose to her. Frances has moved from Atlanta to Miami, leaving a job and an apartment she had previously enjoyed. Between the time they meet and the time she moves, they have spoken on the telephone many times and she has visited him in Miami frequently. Although she feels close to him and appreciates his many wonderful qualities, she still has a few doubts about a long-lasting relationship with him. When she moves to Miami, she lives with his sister, Bette. Bette's job is to maintain a schooner, but her true love is ocean diving. Frances soon becomes accustomed to the casual, sea-filled, sunlit life in Miami, in which they all wear swimsuits even in January.
Frances moves in with Dennis. In the meantime, she has formed a long-lasting bond with Bette, who will be a friend to her indefinitely. When Frances and Dennis do marry, she recalls later that she was "so stunningly, stupidly happy" that all she can remember is what she sees in their wedding photographs. Soon, Dennis is employed by a law firm, Frances is pregnant with their daughter Margo, and they are homeowners. Their marriage has begun; Frances shares it with us so intimately that we feel we are part of this partnership. And so we, too, are challenged by the many hardships of a long marriage --- and buoyed by the unsentimental shared affection that is the very definition of the word "steadfast."
This exquisitely written homage to love in an enduring marriage doesn't skirt the granite-sharp realities of life, and it makes most books centered on "romance" pale in comparison. STILTSVILLE is also a story about a love affair with a place (Miami, described so deliciously as to become an instant irresistible destination spot for readers). Furthermore, it lovingly details the pleasures of lengthy friendships and family connections even as we are presented with how ultimately fleeting the most solid institutions are over time.
The most shocking phrase in the book occurs at the end, in a note from author Susanna Daniel: "This is my first novel…" Wow. As someone who cannot find the words to describe how much I loved this debut, all I can say is: Ms. Daniel, we eagerly anticipate your second book.
Highest recommendation for this engrossing, elegant and highly satisfying story, which manages to be both intimate and universal.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on January 23, 2011
- Publication Date: August 1, 2010
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 320 pages
- Publisher: Harper
- ISBN-10: 0061963070
- ISBN-13: 9780061963070