Mary Alice Monroe
The Summer Girls
Gallery Books / June 25, 2013 / $26.00 print, $10.38 digital
Three granddaughters. Three months. One summer house.
Set amid ancient live oaks and palmettos, overlooking the water, historic Sea Breeze is Marietta Muir’s ancestral summer home. Her granddaughters once adored vacations there, but it’s been years since they’ve visited. Mamaw fears once she is gone, the family bonds will fray. The Muir family is one of Charleston’s oldest and the blood of their pirate captain ancestor runs strong, so Marietta drops a subtle promise of loot—pearl necklaces, priceless antique furniture, even the house—to lure her “summer girls” back to the lowcountry.
For years, Carson Muir has drifted, never really settling, certain only that a life without the ocean is a life half lived. Adrift and penniless in California, Carson is the first to return to Sea Breeze, wondering where things went wrong . . . until the sea she loves brings her a minor miracle. Her astonishing bond with a dolphin helps Carson renew her relationships with her sisters and face the haunting memories of her ill-fated father. As the rhythms of the island open her heart, Carson begins to imagine the next steps toward her future.
Mary Alice Monroe is at her best with the first in her new trilogy, The Summer Girls. When she’s at the top of her game, she engages a reader’s emotions and makes intimate places and situations that may be far removed from personal experience. Southern Fiction evokes a laid-back, naturalistic lifestyle that keeps the focus on family and fighting personal demons. Romance is a lovely part of this, but it’s just one component. The most profound type of romance in Southern Fiction relates to its setting, nature, and often with Monroe, animals.
In Sweetgrass it’s the land itself. In Time is a River, fly fishing on a North Carolina river helps a woman recover after breast cancer and the death of her marriage. Endangered sea turtles are the locus for The Beach House and Swimming Lessons. Not only does Monroe teach readers about loggerhead turtles, the human effort to protect their eggs during incubation results in human healing.
In The Summer Girls, it’s a dolphin that’s transformative. When Mamaw invites her three granddaughters to her 80th birthday party at Sea Breeze, the family’s Lowcountry summer house, she has more in mind than a simple birthday bash. Her grandchildren were born to her Peter Pan of a son and three different wives. During their formative years, middle sister Carson was the bridge between her older and younger sisters, but as adults, none of the three are close. Mamaw intends to change all that during her celebration: To remain in her will, each sister must spend the summer at Sea Breeze.
That’s a no-brainer for Carson. She lost her job in L.A. (she worked on a sitcom that was cancelled after three years) and plans to rejuvenate and regroup with the woman who raised her for much of her childhood. One day while out surfing, a dolphin rescues her from a shark attack. Later that same dolphin appears off of Sea Breeze’s pier, and though Carson knows it’s wrong to feed and interact with wildlife, she begins to treat “Delphyne” like a beloved pet. The dolphin becomes a lifeline for Carson, and also for her nephew, who has Asperger's.
Obviously I’m a sucker for Monroe’s animal-themed stories, but how brilliant is it to use the metaphor of a dolphin pod around which to build a narrative? Whenever I’ve found myself on the open sea, I’ve spent hours looking over the water in delight at watching dolphins and whales arcing over the water. And though this would undoubtedly make Carson’s love interest in the book cringe—more on that later—one of my favorite lifetime memories was of swimming with dolphins in captivity in Mexico way back in 2004.
In the book, Delphyne does not belong to a pod, and hanging around Sea Breeze with people rather than finding one to join won’t help her survive in the wild in the long run. On the other hand, Sea Breeze seems to be a great place to create a pod for Carson and her half-sisters, who are in desperate need of one, hurt by their irresponsible, alcoholic father and his failed dreams. After he took Carson out of his mother’s care, she lost the only stable force in her life. Now she drinks too much and can’t form personal relationships of any duration.
That changes over the summer. She gets a job waitressing. She finds a way to help her nephew relate to the world around him, gives sobriety a try, and begins to see Blake Legare, who studies bottlenose dolphins for NOAA. Their romance begins slowly and tentatively, and after a couple of false starts. They share a love of the ocean and water sports, but because she knows he believes people who bond with dolphins in the wild are in it for their own gratification, she doesn’t tell him about Delphyne.
Carson’s relationship with Blake is her first “grown-up” romance, but it’s obvious that compartmentalizing her life to keep Blake and Delphyne separate is doomed. When her two worlds collide, tragically, all that’s begun to work in her life fails instead. Carson must face long-suppressed memories and fight personal demons, relying on her Mamaw’s “steel magnolia” backbone and the strength of her fledgling family pod to help put her life back on track.
How do Blake and Delphyne fit into her recovery? It’s very complicated, and the book doesn’t provide easy answers. Although it ends hopefully, the loose ends are not tidily tied up.
The Summer Girls reminded me of what I love about Southern Fiction; it’s unabashed emotionality, the marshy Lowcountry scent, the homes of old families—including a skeleton or two or ten—and hopefulness. I wish I didn’t have to wait another year for the second book in this trilogy, but wait I will.
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Laurie Gold cannot stop reading and writing about romance—she’s been blabbing online for years. She remains a work in progress. Keep up with her on her My Obsessions tumblr blog, Goodreads (where she spends much of her time as late), follow her on Pinterest, or on @laurie_gold, where she mostly tweets about publishing news and [probably too often] politics.