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Storms are brewing in The Hurricane Sisters, the latest book by Dorothea Benton Frank, and it’s not just a hurricane heading for Sullivan’s Island.
True to Frank’s past fourteen novels, this one, just published by William Morrow, is set in the South Carolina Lowcountry and follows the ups and downs of a family, their secrets, disappointments, mistakes, and passions.
It follows the lives of three generations of women. Maisie Pringle is the matriarch, whose 80th birthday the family is celebrating as the book opens. She is a lively, open-minded woman who has a live-in boyfriend fifteen years younger than she.
Her daughter, Liz Waters, is a rather bitter woman who feels unappreciated by her family – especially by her mother and husband.
And Liz’s daughter, Ashley, is a beautiful, naïve 23-year-old who yearns to be an artist and who has a crush on a state senator.
Each has her say in various chapters. Clayton, Liz’s husband, also gets a couple of chapters to explain himself when he ends up having an affair with a woman that Liz knew back in her modeling days in Manhattan.
And so the fun begins. If you’re looking for light, summer, beach reading, this is it, except that it does tackle the very serious issue of domestic violence. The book had me engaged immediately when Liz complains about getting Maisie out of jail for walking a llama on an open road. He was on a leash, Maisie explains. In the next chapter, the family gathers at a Charleston restaurant for Maisie’s birthday celebration. There’s a lot of sniping going on: Ashley’s dress is much too short and she’s not contributing enough to her own livelihood, Maisie complains that Liz and Clayton are late (they’re not), and then Liz and Clayton’s gay son, Ivy (for Clayton Waters IV), arrives from San Francisco with his older and Asian boyfriend. Liz is not happy about the older and the Asian aspects, but this is also a woman who sent Ivy to a camp to make him straight.
Not to give too much away, but everyone in the family grows emotionally in this book. Anyone who has read Frank’s books knows this is to be expected. And each character has redeeming qualities, except for the villainous state senator who takes a liking to Ashley and then constantly belittles her. Nevertheless, she is awed by him because she thinks he may run for President one day and she dreams of being first lady; that is, when she’s not dreaming of being a famous artist.
No one seems to understand each other in The Hurricane Sisters. Ashley is a talented artist, but no one notices. Liz is doing good work by helping to run a shelter for abused women, but no one acknowledges it. When she calls her husband in Manhattan, where he spends his week days, he barely listens to her as she excitedly tells him about her successful donor dinner. Well, that’s because he’s out on his girlfriend’s terrace, trying to hide his wife’s phone call from her.
I loved the references to Charleston and Sullivan’s Island. They make me want to go back to Charleston and try out some of those restaurants that Frank mentions.
I did have some problems with The Hurricane Sisters. One was how quickly the state senator, Porter, turns into an abuser. Would he risk his ambitions by attacking a woman? I found Liz’s character a bit confusing. First, she’s this racist, homophobic woman with a bored husband who pays no attention to her, and next she’s a compassionate champion for abused women working to raise money for the past 20 years. And Ashley? Yes, she’s only twenty-three, but her lack of worldliness gets a little unbelievable after a while. Maisie is my favorite character, although her strong sentimental memories of her deceased daughter have closed her heart to Liz. Still, she’s whimsical, and her younger boyfriend makes her happy. When he is rushed to the hospital with a stroke, she won’t leave his side. When Liz goes to Maisie’s house to collect clothes for her, she’s shocked to find that her mother’s underwear is racy.
I was holding a red garter belt in one hand and a bra that had actual feathers on it in another and I collapsed on the foot of her bed, laughing hysterically.
It’s not Frank’s best effort, but The Hurricane Sisters kept my interest and also raises an important issue – that of battered women. This book seems to have been written around that issue to get readers to pay attention to it and show that it can happen to anyone. In her author’s notes, Frank says she came across the facts about South Carolina’s number one ranking for domestic homicide in the U.S. “I began to dig and ask questions only to discover that the problem is dramatically worse than I ever would have imagined,” she writes.
What are some of your favorite beach books?
I just returned from the beach, where, I confess, I didn’t read anything. But I’ve been devouring books this summer, especially recently published books. The best so far are Long Man by Amy Greene and No Book but the World by Leah Hager Cohen. Last night I started Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips. All are dark, involving lost children, neglected children, murdered children. (My book club is nodding its collected head at these typical–for me–wrenching subjects.) All have complex characters, layers plots, and memorable settings. I’ve read plenty of other books that I consumed in a day, and, frankly, my dear, I can’t remember a thing about them.
Ha, Christina! I never would have thunk it of you :-)—that’s the one kind of story I do not like to read—bad things happening to children—my first grade teacher heart bleeds too much—
It’s not that I like to see children suffer, just these dark books had that as a common motif.
It sounds interesting I might try it
Thanks for this review. Every southern woman should have at least one Dorthea Benton Frank under her belt. I don’t yet—maybe this one.
I totally agree. I had the privilege of meeting her in Natchez for a literary convention. She is a lot of fun.
Having recently moved to Daniel Island, SC, I hope to have an opportunity to meet Ms. Dorothea around the area someday soon! I believe she attended a private high school here right on the island. Have not read this book of hers, but will pick it up to say I did.