Utina, Florida, is a small, down-at-heels southern town. Once enlivened by the trade in Palm Sunday palms and moonshine, Utina hasn’t seen economic growth in decades, and no family is more emblematic of the local reality than the Bravos. Deserted by the patriarch years ago, the Bravos are held together in equal measure by love, unspoken blame, and tenuously brokered truces.
The story opens on a sweltering July day, as Frank Bravo, dutiful middle son, is awakened by a distress call. Frank dreams of escaping to cool mountain rivers, but he’s only made it ten minutes from the family restaurant he manages every day and the decrepit, Spanish-moss-draped house he was raised in, and where his strong-willed mother and spitfire sister—both towering redheads, equally matched in stubbornness—are fighting another battle royale. Little do any of them know that Utina is about to meet the tide of development that has already engulfed the rest of Northeast Florida. When opportunity knocks, tempers ignite, secrets are unearthed, and each of the Bravos is forced to confront the tragedies of their shared past.
Reminiscent of Kaye Gibbons, Lee Smith, Anne Tyler, and Fannie Flagg, Heart of Palm introduces Laura Lee Smith as a captivating new voice in American fiction.
Laura Lee Smith is the author of the novels THE ICE HOUSE (Grove Press 2017) and HEART OF PALM (Grove Press 2013). Her short fiction has been anthologized in BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES (2015) and NEW STORIES FROM THE SOUTH: THE YEAR'S BEST (2010). A writer who’s been praised for her “intelligence, heart, and wit” (Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Empire Falls), Smith has won awards and accolades from across the United States, and her work has been translated into German and French. She lives in Florida, where she writes fiction and works as a copywriter. www.lauraleesmith.com
I was actually looking for this author’s 2nd book The Ice House but Amazon didn’t have the kindle format (why?) available, so I reluctantly settled for her debut novel which turned out to be a lovely surprise. The cover and the title may make you think that this is an easy chick lit story but there is a lot more substance to it.
The story follows Arla Bravo who had to bring up her children on her own when Dean Bravo skipped town after a family tragedy. The family and town are put to the test when new developers come to Unita wanting to buy up their properties to build a fancy new marina. A development that will change their lives for the better whether they like it or not.
Although Arla is the one walking with a cane the whole family limps along with their own baggage, and I got the impression they all secretly really liked being wrapped up in their own miseries.
Unita is a small town where everyone knows each other, and the Bravo boys are the most notorious.
Carlson is the big talking, risk taking eldest who became a financial manager in a nearby town. Frank manages the local restaurant and worries about everyone but himself. Sofia, well Sofia is handled with kid gloves as she is high strung and fragile. The Bravos should know as they took her to a psychologist. She is the one character I thought the author did not get right. Sofia is anything but fragile, in fact she is the most level headed of the lot. But then I realised that through the eyes of her family Sofia is viewed as the delicate one because it’s easier to focus on HER disorders rather than looking at their own dysfunctions.
This is a story about family bonds that can feel like a safety net and a prison at the same time.
It was the perfect book to close of the year and I think fans of Joshilyn Jackson will enjoy this book
I grew up in the area where mythical Utina takes place. Ms. Smith captures the encroachment of the present into an area stuck "sometime" in the past. Throughout the story, I felt as though I was hearing someone tell our story with vivid prose. She nails the heartbeat of a people and their struggle to live in the present and saying goodbye to all they once held dear (or not).
I put Smith's debut novel at the top of my list of my favorite books. It's set outside of St. Augustine, Florida in the fictional town of Utina, named for a native tribe. The beauty of this book lies in its characters. The Bravo family's a quirky and eccentric bunch who you will love. Smith's character development equals or surpasses any I've come across. The matriarch of the family, Arla Bravo, lives in a rickety but grand home on the banks of an intracoastal waterway with her daughter Sophia who is about forty. There are four other Bravos, two absen. Arla's absent husband simply walked out one day never to be heard from until twenty years later. One of her sons, Will, died tragically and the other two sons live near by with an ongoing love/hate relationship. The family now faces the possibility of great wealth. But does money make life better? That's the overwhelming question that moves the plot forward.
If you love strong and fascinating characters, a setting that you can almost smell and see with a plot that is simple and moves the story forward at a perfect pace for the beautiful land outside of St. Augustine, you should read this book. I've hesitated to write about it as I struggle with the how to communicate how much I loved it. The characters, even those you may think you do not like, have great complexity. When you think you do not like one, you find that they're very human, never flat or simple.
Utina, Florida, is a small, raggedy town off the beaten path of any of the state’s real estate booms—so far. I’m using that old school “beaten path” expression in place of the more modern-ish “radar” because Utina is not the sort of place where people know from radar, but they definitely do know about tangled, root-rich, overgrown paths leading to the Intercostal Waterway. The Bravo family owns the town’s bar and grill—the only one—which is run by the good-hearted Frank, who stayed in town with his eccentric mother and erratic sister, while his brother Carson married the woman Frank loves and moved to St. Augustine.
Laura Lee Smith’s first novel is a story of people and place, both of which are rendered in affectionate, believable detail. This is not to say that this is a sweet story; it has plenty of depth and plenty of bite. The Bravos are faced with an opportunity that would secure their futures but destroy their town. They are certainly Quixotic, but Carson is also desperate for cash and Frank would like to move somewhere cooler. Termite-riddled Aberdeen, the family home, is being held together by rampant vines and is so crammed with junk that it just might be impossible to ever clear out. What will they choose? The answer will surprise you.
Heart of Palm is a lovely read. Smith manages to create characters who spark even in the sweaty atmosphere of Utina. She has published a number of short pieces and she has expanded into the novelist’s realm with grace and ease. I think we can look forward to an ongoing exploration of the hearts and minds of a state so many people visit, but so few people actually know.
Family saga set in Florida in a small town near St Augustine. I picked this up after reading Laura Lee Smith’s The Ice House several years ago (which I loved), but this book is not in the same league. I found it long and dreary. The characters are an unlikeable bunch. It is mainly about life in a small town, where developers want to buy up the land and turn it into a tourist trap. I could not muster much enthusiasm for it.
Laura Lee Smith's Heart of Palm captured my heart first with its setting in north Florida, and second, with its quirky Bravo family drawn in the best of southern family traditions.
The Bravo family lives in the fictional small town of Utina on the Intercoastal just a short drive from St. Augustine. The development all over Florida forgot this sleepy little village until one day it becomes apparent that this gem of a location might be the perfect spot for a new resort.
The mother of the Bravo tribe, Arla, came from the upper crust of St. Augustine society when she married the hapless Dean. A typical story, except that Arla is anything but typical, and her relationship with her husband is anything but a love story after the first forays of lust in the heady days of a Florida summer.
The family defines the overused concept of dysfunctional. Arla's son Frank holds the family together the best he can while pining for the love of his life who just happens to be married to his brother Carson. It's a messy pile of sand spurs on a desolate beach of missed chances and tragic accidents.
Just when the story falls into the Pat Conroy fold of family heartbreak and insanity, a developer happens along to perk up heads and hold out hands.
I loved the pace of the story and enjoyed getting to know the characters created by Smith. She knows north Florida and expresses her passion for Florida, although I would have enjoyed a bit more description of the landscape. That's just my personal preference, especially when the setting is Florida between the Intercoastal and the Atlantic Ocean.
The title puzzled me, until I thought about it. The inner core of certain palms is called the heart of palm, and it is removed to create a tasty salad. At least I thought it was tasty, until I found out in some species of palms its removal results in death of the whole tree. The author doesn't make this obvious, and I only figured it out because of my knowledge of heart of palm salad. The title Heart of Palm is well suited for the plot.
It's sometimes difficult to write reviews with thorough explanations without using a spoiler. Therefore, I will simply say that the ending was not as satisfying as the rest of the novel. All in all, it's a good romp through the sea oats and marsh grasses of north Florida and a grand visit with a southern family at its zaniest best.
Family issues in a little town in Florida are exacerbated by realtors who are clamoring for three hot properties.
My thoughts after reading this book...
The Bravos...odd, unusual, surrounded by trouble...this is the family at the heart of this novel. The only somewhat sane and normal one is Frank...he seems to be the one holding this family together. Arla and Sofia...mother and daughter constantly bickering...Dean...the father who just walked away one day. Carson and Frank...Carson desperately needing the money that is being offered for the valuable land this family owns. There is another brother but I will not tell you his fate.
So...Carson is a cheater, Sofia is a mess, Frank pines for Carson's wife and Dean turns up and is back in their lives again.
I truly hate recapping this kind of novel...it's complex, you have to read it and get involved in the lives of this touching yet dysfunctional family. Nothing I can write will recap it eloquently.
What I loved about this book...
I loved the setting, loved the writing, loved most of the characters but especially Belle...Carson's little daughter. I laughed hysterically at the Blizzard scene at the Dairy Queen when Arla didn't get the extra M&M's she paid for...OMG!
What I did not love...
Hmmm...the sad parts...and there were a few.
This is a true family drama...with all of its misfits and dysfunctions. I loved it!
When there is just enough (money, luck, talent, etc., etc,etc,) to get by, one tends not to take chances or stray very far from what’s familiar. For once the fence has been crossed, if it goes wrong – there are just not enough resources to make it go away. The Bravo family is generations of depleted resources, abject poverty, and a whole lotta dysfunction. Lifetimes of being from the wrong side of town might just turn out to be being in the perfect location at the perfect time with the growth of the Florida intercostal waterways.
Heart of Palm is a complex novel in that there are a number of developed plots and subplots with hot sweaty twists and turns making this novel full of emotional scenes and unexpected drama at every turn. The characters are as flawed as you and I, possessing transparent hearts and that southern sense of humor.
Laura Lee Smith’s debut novel is impressively flawless and heartfelt. Her descriptive writing will have you hearing the owls and cicadas, smelling the grease and feeling sweaty and sticky. You can tell the author is Floridian for the leisurely pace of this book just adds to its ambiance.
You can't judge a book by it's cover. The book looks like a sappy romance novel, but it still interested me because it was about the part of Florida that you have to look really hard to find these days. I have been a Floridian for 42 years and I have seen in grow from small town beauty to city upon crowded city.
Beyond that the book had a great plot line about a very dysfunctional family with lots of twists and turns. The characters all had a likable quality and most also had a hard to like side.
A great book about a Florida that seems to be lost forever in the midst of Disney, South Beach, and the sprawling megalopolis of South Florida...gave me a little twinge of "remember when..."
Ps. Had many references to Florida Gator football-gotta love that!
Heart of Palm was the perfect book to bring on a Florida vacation. It's 450 pages and I tore through it once I got going. Before I left I did a search for books set in FL, looking beyond the usual suspects. Once you read Swamplandia you are drenched with a sense of place reflecting the old FL clashing with the new. A great book.
This one was was not GREAT but it was damn good IF you are interested in the area north of St. Augustine on the Atlantic, the small town lives being lived between the destination spots us New Englanders crave once winter sets in, and admire an author who manages to write about ordinary people being pressed by extraordinary circumstances.
The Bravo (!) family is well known in this forgotten town where jobs are few and hopes are minimal. For generations they've not been exactly model citizens. In the mid-Sixties one Bravo boy falls for a local city girl in St. Augustine. She's walking along the highway all tall and regal. Dean Bravo falls instantly in lust/love. Arla comes from a well off family, but is not close to her parents who are not close to each other. Instead of going to college, she gets married. To Dean. Not a good idea. In the prologue their honeymoon turns into a disaster that never really ends. The novel shifts to the present in the numbered chapters and there are scads of characters to follow. Arla has had four children who are now grown and mostly screwed up. Frank is the most solid character in the book who yearns for a different place. The one time his family took a vacation when they were kids to the mountains outside of Asheville, NC he fell in love with the magic of watching fireworks above the clouds. His own northern lights, his dream place. But the Bravos are known as troubled and trouble makers. Well deserved in their teenage years, yet still being treated with suspicion.
Their father, Dean, left the family 20 years earlier and somehow The New Bravos have managed to carve a sliver of a life out of what they have: a run down house called Aberdeen, an eldest sister who is OCD, Carson who has 'made it' in St. Augustine after marrying a local girl. He's a jerk. Frank runs the family bar and restaurant called Uncle Henry's, and a younger brother met a tragic end when the boys were in their teens. Other townspeople make up the rest of the cast until their land on the Intracoastal interests real estate honchos 'out of Atlanta.' Should they sell?
Should they take the vintage 'kit cat clock' that is mentioned with great frequency throughout the novel as time passes (although the author keeps referring to it as a 'Felix' clock). It's not.
The author juggles events, flashbacks, and decisions in unexpected ways. This unpredictability of what would/could happen next moved along at a languid but rich pace. The writing was good, clear, and thoughtful. It was published in 2013. So many books, so little time, but this one might be worth your time when you want to settle in to something that won't end in a hurry. It reflects the slow moving South with its heat, its contrasts, and the venerable set up of a love/hate relationship with where one comes from. "...the three of them sitting together, somehow, with something that might have been love but was different--harder, tighter, stronger, even, than love. It wasn't love, in fact. It was family." (page 399)
The worst thing about this book is the title. If I had gone by that alone, I probably would not have chosen the book because it sounds like just another romance, but the description drew me in.
But this Southern saga of the Bravo family is so much more than a romance, even though there is some of that involved, and even though the first few pages made it seem just another romance.
You just don't want to get mixed up with those fellas. Just ask Arla, who fell in love with Dean when she was just a teenager.
I loved the characters in this book. They had depth and originality and a great deal of heart. Arla, whose life didn't turn out at all as she expected. Dean, her charismatic husband, and the first Bravo we meet. Frank, who just tried to hold things together. Carson, who was so easy to dislike. Sweet, damaged Sophia. And a cast of others who made me care about them. Biaggio, whose whole existence was due to spite. And even Drusilla, only a headstone hidden in the palmettos, but a good friend to Arla.
Of course, there is a tragedy. There has to be a tragedy other than just the everyday waste of so many lives.
This is a sweet, wonderful book, bittersweet like the best chocolate, and a lovely summer read.
I was given an advance reader's copy of this book for review, for which I am grateful.
I have a suspicion that the publicists missed the mark when promoting Laura Lee Smith’s Heart of Palm. I’m in no way qualified to make that statement (because really, I know nothing about how those publicists work) however I know what sort of books reach out from the shelves in a book shop and yell “Pick me! Pick me!”. Obviously something about Heart of Palm caught my attention (on Netgalley) but it was years ago, and each time I read the blurb again, I wondered what it was that had attracted me…
It presents as somewhat light-weight, possibly even straying into chick-lit territory. And that cover with the fancy script? File the book under mum-lit or family saga.
Now scrap all that I’ve implied.
Heart of Palm is a finely written story that has memorable but believable characters, a wonderful sense of place and enough action to keep you reading (but not so much that would make the story improbable). Think Grey Gardens meets Carl Hiaasen.
3.5/5 Don’t judge a book by its cover. Or its blurb.
I received my copy of Heart of Palm, from the publisher, Grove Press, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
The writer's craft in this novel is just outstanding. The characters are so well drawn they feel like people you've known forever. Their back-stories are revealed just a line or two at a time as their current story evolves. The plot twists appear unexpectedly, as they should, but you immediately sense the rightness that they should have occurred just as they did. But the author so cleverly hadn't tipped her hand. Whether you know North Florida or know, you will by the time you finish this book. Every detail rings authentic. I had the pleasure of meeting Laura Lee Smith at a reading of Heart of Palm. Our local book club selected this for our group read, and every member loved it. I highly recommend this book.
I've found that southern fiction often ends up at opposite ends of a spectrum. Either the book takes its southernness SO seriously that it wears it like a badge of honor---or a chip on the shoulder. I can't read those books--the pompous southern fiction. The other end are the books that exhibit their southernness like a caricature. These are the often hysterical books that showcase the oddities that are often go hand in hand with life in the south. Heart of Palm sat wonderfully in the middle. There was oddness, for sure, but it was a quiet oddness that I could relate to. I honestly felt personally connected to all of the characters and found myself cheering them on, yelling at them not to do it, and my heart breaking along with theirs.
I've spent the best part of an hour this morning tracking down this book because I KNEW I'd read it back some years ago and could NOT remember the name or the author. I finally zeroed in on it using Calibre. Now, since I read in the neighborhood of 200 books per year, the fact that I'd even remembered I read it back in 2014 means to me that I found it impressive.
I've refreshed my memory a bit by looking at other reviews, but I do remember that I found the characters life-like and interesting people to spend time with. The story also held my interest wondering whether the family would sell out to the developers or hold on to the family property.
If you enjoy books about the modern South and family dramas, this one is a worth-while read. And it would make a great beach book.
We planned on this book for our August book club. I enjoyed the first chapter. I was disappointed that the second chapter didn't keep the same protagonist and switched POV to her son twenty years later. Then ... half way through that second chapter, I started flipping the pages quickly looking for the beginning of a story. It rambled on and on about the backstory of the town, of the neighborhood, of his family, and none of it was of any interest to me. It reminded me of an old man sitting on a porch reminiscing about the past with no direction or connection, but stopping to spit occasionally.
It couldn't keep my interest. I mentioned this to my book club. Others felt the same. We all abandoned it and for the first time ever picked a new book mid-month to talk about at our next meeting.
This book! I'm not a "deep" book review-er by any means but I'd definitely like to offer my thoughts on this one because it really spoke to me.
I loved all the characters; good, bad, or indifferent each character was well developed in a concise way that made it easy to cruise through this family drama. I'm all about an easy read and I also like connecting with characters on a personal level, and this book gave me both!
Sad, real, infuriating, inspiring, hilarious and heartbreaking...this book gave me all the feels!
This book drags like Arla's stump leg up three flights of stairs.
***I bumped it up a star because it's actually refreshingly original in its awfulness. You may find yourself months later laughing at all the horrible things that happen to the characters of this book.
I really liked the story and characters; however, the author's ad nauseum use of "he said", "she said" and need to name who was speaking to whom even within a two-person conversation was so annoying because it made the flow of the story drag. I admit it's a big pet peeve of mine; like nails on a chalkboard when listening to a book. I can't believe the editor of this book didn't catch that and help the author with learning how to write dialogue. So, what could have been a 5-star gets dinged to a 4-star.
Quirky, broken, severely flawed characters making a mess of their lives in hot, sticky Florida. Brilliant writing and character descriptions in this entertaining novel. It’s tragic and sad but funny and hopeful. I loved it
The Bravo family has a history of tragedy and heartache. The matriarch, Alma Bolton Bravo, was raised in a well-to-do family and never wanted for anything. Alma decided as a teenager that she wanted to be different, so she chose to marry a man that was as different from her family as she could find, Dean Bravo. The first tragedy in their lives occurred on their honeymoon, when Alma is in a boating accident that causes the amputation of her toes and splits her foot. Of course it doesn't help that the cause of the accident was Dean's refusal to have a third party as a spotter to go out with them so Alma could water-ski safely. Years pass, Alma and Dean have four children and are barely making ends meet and the second tragedy occurs with the death of their youngest child. As the years pass, it is evident that their eldest, Sofia has mental health issues (she was diagnosed as manic-depressive with OCD). Dean, a heavy drinker, winds up deserting the family shortly after the death of their youngest child. Alma makes do and eventually buys out her brother-in-law's business, a local bar and grill. Carson Bravo, the eldest son, marries and moves away from home and starts his own business. Frank Bravo, the youngest son, still lives in Utina and runs the restaurant, a job he's had since he was nineteen years old. Sofia lives at home with her mother and helps her brother out by cleaning the restaurant every morning.
On the surface it appears that the Bravo family is just a family dealing with the usual family issues and dysfunctions, but the Bravos are dealing with more than tragedy, heartache and mental health issues. Frank is in love with his sister-in-law and wants to move away from Utina and live a quiet life. He knows this won't happen as long as his mother and sister are around and need him. Carson has made a mess of both his marriage and his business and needs to find a quick fix for both before he winds up divorced, in prison or worse. Sofia struggles with her mental health issues, but she is surviving and has found love for the first time in her life at age forty-three. Alma, as the matriarch, worries about her children but knows that she can no longer control them. The family is offered the chance to make a large sum of money and leave Utina behind, something they think about or say they want until the opportunity is presented to them.
Ms. Smith has captured the essence of family in all its dysfunction in Heart of Palm. As I read, I was reminded of the line from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The Bravos are unhappy in their own special way. There aren't any true bad guys in Heart of Palm, as each Bravo family member deals with their own secrets and guilt. Dean and Alma aren't the best parents, but they did what they could for their family to the best of their abilities. Sofia, Carson and Frank aren't loving siblings but they are there for one another when needed. Carson's wife Elizabeth, and daughter Bell, add their own idiosyncrasies to the family. Sofia's love interest, Biaggio, works with and for the Bravo family and he considers himself a family member even before he and Sofia decide to marry. Heart of Palm is filled with angst, drama, greed, guilt, pain, suffering, forgiveness, and love . . . all the things that make a family a family. If you're looking for a well-written story about family and small-town living, then I strongly recommend Heart of Palm.
Many books claim to be reminiscent of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe , but this small-town novel fits the bill. A buffet of genres, this story begins with young Arla's refusal to heed her parents' warning her against marrying no-good Dean Bravo. As her parents expected, he leaves her to raise their 3 children on her own...or does he? I don't want give away any spoilers, but read the book if you want to see what financial mismanagement, a multimillion dollar opportunity, uncertainties and excitement brought by change, entrepreneurship, extramarital affairs, mental illness, romance, and the challenges wrought by big-city encroachment on small town business and living have in common. I agree with another reviewer who stated the book is overly descriptive; nonetheless, it is an impressive debut novel.
Brand new author - loved this book. It revolves around the Bravo family of Utina, FL (near St. Augustine). As someone who has lived in this area, it was great to read about life in the small Florida town where the Bravo's have lived for generations. Alma, the tall, beautiful redhead who comes from money and marries the wild, blue-collar Dean. Right off the bat they have trouble. Lots of drinking, running around, crazy behavior that makes for a great story. My only regret is not having it on my Kindle. Lots of funny one-liners that I would have loved to highlight. I am looking forward to her next book!
I received this book from Goodreads as an Advanced Reader Copy.
I wish Goodreads would make half stars available because I like this more than 3 stars, but didn't "really" like it enough for 4 stars. It's simply a good story about a family in a small North Florida town.
We first meet Arla when she's 18 years old. After she marries Dean, we jump forward about fifty years and meet Arla's children. This isn't really a book with action, it's just a story about a small-town and the Bravo family. There were a few slow moments, but I was always interested in learning more about the Bravo's tough times -- both past and present.
Here's a book that I didn't expect to love ... but I did. Heart of Palm is a portrait of a dysfunctional rural Florida family whose world turns upside down as seemingly everything around them, and among them, begins to change. I came to love these characters, who are each dealing with the scars of past tragedies, with loss and regret, in vastly different and often eccentric ways. This tender, witty novel moved me to tears. A wonderful read.
recieved an advanced copy of this book and i absolutly loved it! the bravos have an amazing story behind them and were fun to read about. loved how it talks about chinese acrobats in the beginning of chapter 16. I think Laura Lee Smith did an amazing job with this book and i would definatly recommend for others to read!
I absolutely loved this book. Smith perfectly captures the essence of this area of Florida. Her characters are some of the finest ever. And I loved the dog. I picked the book up to take a look at it and found myself deeply enmeshed almost instantly. The prologue is the best ever. Will totally reel you in.
What an outstanding debut novel. Couldn't put it down this weekend. Set in a small town north of St. Augustine, you can feel the decay of old Florida as the promise and dread of developers casts a shadow over the story. Each member of the Bravo family is realistically portrayed. Just a great read.
Loved this book so much. I was hesitant to read it at first, but I know the setting, the St. Augustine area, well and it was recommended in Garden & Gun magazine, so I decided to give it a try based on those two factors. So glad I did...couldn't put it down.