Ship(wrecked)in a Bottle: Local settings make for good summer reading

“A lot of people ask me if I were shipwrecked, and could only have one book, what would it be? I always say How to Build a Boat.”

—Stephen Wright

OK, paraphrasing: (Tolstoy had it right) — all happy families look like the same old sitcom; it’s the unhappy families that provide the groundbreaking drama — and the opportunity for scoring some serious Emmy home decor. Every individual story, every life shipwrecked against its own expectations and circumstances feels the tidal pull and push that family sets in motion. Both strength and disappointment are learned young, outlining the shape of personal character an individual under stress will inevitably reveal.

What sort of history can be written of a time that insists some things are best forgotten? What sort of life can be cobbled together with only a handful of doubts and misinformation to work with? With South Carolina’s Piedmont and Lowcountry as backdrops, two new novels give us strong female leads grappling with these questions in very different ways, yet each revealing how, for better or worse, their fathers shaped their sense of solid footing beneath them in a land of marsh and river courses.


Between The Tides
Patti Callahan Henry
(Trade paperback, NAL, $14)

On her 30th birthday, Catherine “Cappy” Leary finds herself tugged toward her future by the one task that will set her on a collision course with her past: to honor her father’s last wish, she will have to return to Seaboro, South Carolina, the last place her family was intact, the last time her life made sense. Author Henry writes with a lyrical touch: we follow Cappy through the tale as though in dreamtime, moving between yearning and revulsion, hope and panic, toward reconciliation and ultimately, redemption. Her journey, in the tide pool of her own and her family’s past, creates a resonance around her: joined in her return to Seaboro by her father’s trusted protege and colleague, a relationship the author offers as focus and counterpoint to Cappy’s relationship with her father. Fans of Mary Alice Monroe will appreciate Between The Tides both for its writing style and narrative arc.



What You Have Left
Will Allison
(Hardcover, Free Press, $23)

Will Allison’s debut novel, shifting back and forth among narrators, gives us a wide-angle view of his tale, building it up from almost short story-like components. Only days after Holly’s mother dies in an accident, her father Wylie abandons her and disappears. Holly grows up, fiercely independent, under the watchful eye of her maternal grandfather, Cal, on his dairy farm in the Piedmont. A final effort at reunion with her father in early adulthood ends with Holly writing off her loss and shifting her inner struggles to her new marriage.

Allison does not tug at the heart with his narrative but rather takes up the threads of his character’s lives with patience and a keen eye for the telling detail. In a flashback, we hear Holly’s mother summing up her life in a conversation with her husband, Wylie:

“My life is one big mistake,” she said.

“No, it’s not,” he said. “It’s a series of small mistakes.”

The unsentimental tenderness of such moments is evident throughout the novel. In Allison’s hands, even Holly’s efforts to give up smoking profoundly reveal her character and the obstacles she must face.

Highly recommended.

Mr. Allison will be at Barnes & Noble in Mt. Pleasant’s Towne Centre to sign and read from What You Have Left on Thurs. June 14 at 7 p.m.

Find more on the Spilling The Ink blog: Comments and book recommendations? Always welcome: Thanks for reading. Call your mother now and then.

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