August 4, 2013

Book Review: You've heard it before, happily

Familiar in the best ways – its character-rich plot and the author's Richard Russo-esque voice – 'Heart of Palm' succeeds.

By GINA WEBB, McClatchy Newspapers

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"HEART OF PALM." By Laura Lee Smith. Grove Press. 496 pages. $24.

Though most of the events are seen through the Bravos' eyes, this is a rowdy, crowded book with an extensive supporting cast, including Frank's co-worker Morgan, who also owns a piece of the Bravo pie; Biaggio, a kindhearted moving man who patiently stalks Sofia; and Mac, a disbarred lawyer who referees the Bravo brothers' fights.

The story they all come together to tell is about loss -- breathtaking, harrowing loss and how it can be withstood -- and the power of family to shoulder the burden and find forgiveness.

But for many in Utina, it's also about a less dramatic heartbreak that occurs in the wake of certain choices, the life that happens while we're looking the other way.

Smith, who lives in St. Augustine, excels at bringing this north Florida hamlet to life. Her dialogue is pitch-perfect, her landscapes fragrant with jasmine and yellow pine, and she eloquently evokes the mixture of tenderness and callousness essential to small-town relationships.

Early on, Arla says Dean was the "bitter medicine" that "brought her to herself." Smith's novel carries much the same mixed blessing. In the end -- which comes with a delightful twist -- the guilty pleasure of "Heart of Palm" is its steadfast tangle of rage and grief and love, a heaping dose of Southern soul with a whole lot of chutzpah thrown in.


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