Maurean's Reviews > Sullivan's Island

Sullivan's Island by Dorothea Benton Frank
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Feb 14, 08

Read in July, 2007

Well, as I’ve mentioned before, I have committed myself to quite a bit of reading lately…I don’t usually do that, as I’m one who prefers to just pick up and read whatever strikes my fancy at that particular moment in time. But, as a result of a round-robin I’m involved with, I recently received some titles that I probably wouldn’t have picked up if left to my own devices.

“Sullivan’s Island” by Dorthea Benton Frank is one of those. While it was a New York Times Bestseller, the pastel artwork (while a beautiful cover!) and the cover blurbs from Pat Conroy and Bret Lott left me the impression that this would be some melodramatic, mushy women’s fiction novels that I find tedious and tiring (no means to offend these authors or their loyal fans!). Now I know this is so cliché’, but that old axiom that “we should never judge a book by its cover” is true; this may well be one of the best books I’ve read all year.

Frank’s sense of place is so detailed and descriptive, I could literally smell the salt air! (Okay…so, I live at the beach, but still…) Each and every character in this story became ‘real’ for me, and the story flows so well, it’s hard to believe this is Frank’s debut novel.

Set in South Carolina’s low country, the story follows Susan Hamilton Hayes on her life’s journey, as she faces an uncertain future and comes to terms with an often-tremulous past. The chapters of the book alternate between 1963 (Susan’s 13th year) and the present day (1999).

When we meet Susan, she and her teenage daughter, Beth, are heading back to her family home, The Island Gamble, to spend some time with her sister and come to terms with the dissolution of her marriage and her estranged husbands infidelities. With the steadfast support of her sister Maggie, Susan wades through the events of her current situation with grace, humor and a steeled determination. I loved Susan’s attitude, having found out that Karen - the New Age twenty-something that is Tom’s (Susan’s husband) mid-life crisis – was talking to Beth about their sex life, Susan left the following message on her machine:

“Tiger Woman? This is Susan Hayes calling. Kindly confine the bells and whistles of your sex life with my husband to conversations with other adults. Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to educate my daughter about the joys of illegal cohabitation. My daughter is a minor and does not need to hear about how her father and his concubine thrill each other. The minute descriptions of your repugnant gymnastics are of no interest to either one of us. If this message needs any clarification, you may call me. If this continues to be an issue, my lawyer will call you. You’ll find concubine and repugnant in the dictionary – if you own one – which I seriously doubt.” (pg. 225)

Now THAT’s funny.

The other story Susan has to tell is one of her childhood, growing up a Geechee girl and the beauty and heartache that that entailed. As one of six children, brought up with an abusive father, a weak mother, a crazy grandmother and a wonderful, strong Gullah woman, Livvie, the reader is transported to 1963 in a tale of love, pain, heritage and home. The scenes the author paints are vivid:

“We were our own parade. We cast long shadows on the soft, wet sand, bulked up by the towels thrown over our shoulders. Our footprints formed and irregular trail. An occasional sun worshipper would glance up from her paperback novel and remark on our passing to a friend in the beach chair next to her.” (pg. 77)

Sometimes infuriating:

“…I could hear Timmy crying as the belt cracked across his back…I passed the top of the steps and saw my mother sitting at the bottom, whimpering. She would do nothing about it. I looked at her and she looked away. She was terrified of Daddy when he was like this. I was too furious to be terrified.” (pg. 204)

Often times wickedly funny:

“Reaching for his toothbrush, I looked at it and realized he’d been brushing his teeth for someone else for a long time. I don’t know what possessed me to do it but I dunked it in the toilet. That pleased me so much that I rubbed it around the inside rim.” (pg. 8)

And always completely honest and engaging:

“It was unfair that trouble consumed you in landslides and understanding arrived with the miserly drip of a faucet.” (pg. 252)

I absolutely loved every word of this endearing, relentless tale; I cannot praise it enough.
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