“At least now you know the truth and in time it will help you gain perspective,” Mary Alice Monroe’s matriarchal leading lady, Marietta Muir (affectionately known as Mamaw), assures in the novel “The Summer Girls.” Monroe’s novel follows the struggles of its many heroines as they discover the truth about their family, and also about the women they have become.
Over her career Monroe has written myriad works, with over a dozen novels, children’s books, and non-fictional pieces under her belt. She worked as a journalist and wrote for the Encyclopedia Britannica before pursuing her passion in creative writing. Her books have made it onto many bestseller lists, like “New York Times” and “USA Today.” She even has been awarded the SC Center for the Book Award for Fiction and the International Book Award for Green Fiction.
Her latest novel, “The Summer Girls,” opens with an invitation—Mamaw’s request for the presence of her three grandchildren at her long-time, seaside home, Sea Breeze. Located on Sullivan’s Island, outside of Charleston, the Victorian abode served as the girls’ summer home for much of their childhood. Half-sisters, the girls lived apart—Harper and Dora with their mothers, and Carson with the girls’ father. Summers provided time together, and with Mamaw. In their youth, they spent the long, hot Southern days frolicking around the island, filling Sea Breeze with their pirate games and laughter. They became Mamaw’s “summer girls.”
By the time we meet the women, it has been many years since they have been back to their childhood haunt—and just as long since they have spoken to one another. Mamaw requests her grandchildren come spend the weekend with her to celebrate her 80th birthday—the promise of old family heirlooms thrown in for enticement. The request comes at a pivotal time for the Muir women, each fighting her own difficult battle.
Mamaw, with the benefit of time and perspective, is finally able to recognize the heartache she caused by allowing her son, the girls’ father, to run wild. For her, this is the summer to make amends. Dora, the eldest, is struggling through a divorce and the loss of her picture-perfect life while caring for her autistic son. Harper, the youngest, is stuck under the domineering hand of her mother but longs to make a life for herself that is her own.
Carson, the protagonist, has driven her dying car nearly 3,000 miles from L.A. to stay the summer with Mamaw. Out of a job and money, Mamaw’s invitation seemed a saving-grace to the floundering 34-year-old. Her alcoholism and repressed childhood anxieties are brought to light at Sea Breeze as she battles demons from her past in the struggle to discover who she is. One guiding light for Carson becomes a dolphin she befriends in an unlikely circumstance.
The South Carolina Lowcountry plays a major role in the “The Summer Girls” narrative. Monroe skillfully works environmental issues into the story, weaving the survival of a dolphin to Carson’s own survival. It almost tricks readers as they learn a lot about the fragility of the ecosystem—the delicate balance of the relationship between humans and marine life laced into the story. By the end, one will feel just as connected to the dolphins as Carson.
The story itself is not new: children plagued into adulthood by their absent or unloving parents; however, Monroe adds her own style and twist to the story. She reinvigorates it with genuine relatability. Her characters are dynamic and easy to identify with, and despite their flaws and mistakes, readers want them to succeed. Their emotions and struggles are real; pain and joy gets shared with readers seamlessly. Sewn together with articulate, creative prose and natural dialogue, the book is quick and enjoyable. Only a few pages in will readers find it hard to put down.
By the end, they’re so invested in the characters, letting go can be hard. And a want for more explanation of the women after the book beckons. Still, Monroe’s ending is true to form. She doesn’t cater to anyone by offering up the perfect story-book ending. She simply chooses the perfect ending. Through 300 pages, its easy to connect to the women‘s growth and leave feeling hopeful about their successes.
Though perhaps not as intellectually stimulating as Faulkner, Monroe’s “The Summer Girls” is a great work of fiction with more depth than most books of its kind. A quintessential beach read, it offers a surprise for those final dog days of summer.
The Summer Girls
By Mary Alice Monroe
Gallery Books (June 25, 2013) • $16