The Summer Girls by Mary Alice Monroe (Gallery Books, 2013)
Each summer I search for books that are great reads for the beach. These are the novels that tell good stories and provide “recreational reading,” while not necessarily promoting too much thinking. Mary Alice Monroe's The Summer Girls, the first of a trilogy about the Muir family of Sullivan's Island in South Carolina, definitely qualifies as a great beach read, but one that actually does give more than just a frivolous love story. Monroe provides food for thought regarding the plight of dolphins in the wild and the preservation of nature on this planet.
Marietta Muir, the grand dame of an old Charleston family who boasted of being the descendent of a pirate captain, is facing her 80th birthday. She decides that an appropriate celebration for this special occasion would be to invite her three granddaughters, Carson, Dora, and Harper, her “summer girls” to return to the family's beach home, Sea Breeze, on Sullivan's Island. It has been years since the girls have been to the island at one time.
The young women, all daughters of Marietta's only son, Parker, share the same father but have different mothers, making them half sisters. Parker, a ne'er do well drunkard, was enabled and indulged by his doting mother and subsequently lost himself in liquor. The sad result was that none of his schemes to become successful as an artist and writer ever panned out, and he died at the age of 47. Looking to atone for her poor parenting skills, “Mamaw” as she is known to the girls, wants to bring together the sisters who once shared a close bond when they shared summers on the remote Sullivan's Island.
Their busy lives have provided feeble excuses for the sisters to prevent them from visiting Mamaw, and her companion, Lucille, who has served as Mamaw's maid for over 50 years. The relationship between Lucille and Marietta has deepened to an abiding friendship and personal dependency over time. Each of the granddaughters has baggage to bring with her, and not just suitcases filled with shorts and camisoles. Attending their grandmother's 80th soiree will force them to face their miserable lives and perhaps make better life choices.
Harper Muir James works for her mother, Georgiana, who is the executive editor of a major publishing house. At the age of 28, the petite and pretty Harper, spends her life trying to please her mother, serving as her personal assistant. Quiet and demure, Harper's personality has been squashed flat by her domineering mother. But for this occasion, Mamaw's 80th, Harper finds the gumption to stand up to her mother, who forbids her to go the Sullivan's Island, no matter what the cost.
Dora, once a beautiful Southern belle, has became bloated and miserable. Raising her autistic son, Nate, has cost her dearly. Unable to cope with the attention that she gives their son, Dora's husband, Calhoun, has walked out on both his wife and child. Faced with the loss of her home and life style, Dora decides to come to Mamaw's party despite her despair and sadness, but, of course, she is forced to bring Nate with her, and she has never disclosed the nature of his problem to the rest of her family. By spending time with the family, Nate's issues, his tantrums and odd behaviors, will be exposed to those who love Dora, and she will have to explain the child's problems to all of them.
The third sister, Carson Muir, is the focal character of The Summer Girls. At 34 she has enjoyed a career in photography in California. However, at the moment things are falling apart for Carson. The television series on which she has been working for three years has been canceled, she has depleted her life savings, and job prospects are not materializing. Carson also realizes that she has been drinking a bit too much and is beginning to question if she has a genetic proclivity towards alcoholism. Relieved to have an excuse to get out of LA, Carson is the first of the Muir sisters to head to the Sea Breeze to honor her grandmother.
Thus, the main thread of the story is about the relationships between estranged sisters who struggle with secrets, insecurities, ambivalence, and lies. But, again, Monroe has written so much more than just a family saga.
A water bug, Carson has surfed since she was a young girl. One morning she has a life altering experience in the surf. A bull shark appears, frighteningly close to Carson's surfboard, and she is scared to death. Out of no where a dolphin suddenly comes to Carson's defense. “The dolphin was so fast it hydroplaned across the water like a missile to T-bone the shark's flank. The bully shark seemed to fold in half under the force of the hit in its vulnerable gills. For a fraction of a second the stunned shark appeared to hang limp, suspended in the water. Then, in a swift reflexive move, the monster swung its head, its blood-colored gums and fierce teeth exposed, in an attack. The dolphin bolted, but not before the shark's teeth closed on its tail.” (p. 47)
This near death experience is the beginning of a deep love between Carson and the dolphin who has rescued her from the jaws of the bull shark. Not only do Carson and Dolphine, as Carson dubs the creature, form a bond, Nate, the autistic child becomes fascinated by the dolphin as well. Recognizing a way to reach her nephew and bring him into a richer life, Carson encourages the boy to learn all that he can about dolphins and to love Dolphine as well.
Monroe's depiction of a child struggling to become part of the social fabric of his family and the greater world is realistic and heart warming. Linking an autistic child to an animal who asks for nothing back but unconditional love, is a stroke of brilliance on the part of Monroe.
The novel is rich in its development of complex and sympathetic characters, as well as in its detail and respect for plant and animal life in South Carolina. Details about the creatures, especially the birds and aquatic life, enrich the novel's scope beyond the Muir family saga.
As an added bonus, through her love of the dolphin, Carson finds a young man who shares many of the same interests as does she. But, there are dark clouds on the horizon as an unexpected act of innocence turns dark and threatening in the waters of Sullivan's Island.
There is drama, love, crisis, and an open ending which makes the reader want to rush out and get the second installment in the series to find out what happens to the Muir women as they renew their lives as the “Summer girls.”