Dorothea Benton Frank knows her readers expect descriptions of marsh grass and curtains of Spanish moss in her writing. And the author, who released her 13th novel Porch Lights on June 12, is fine with that. “I guess I could write about Nebraska, but then I’d have to do book tours in Nebraska,” Frank laughs over the phone from her New Jersey house.
Frank says it’s no secret that her fan base loves her hometown of Sullivan’s Island and its surrounding areas as much as she does. They are quick to tell her about their appreciation for her depictions of the Lowcountry, she says — especially the ex-pats and those who say they should be living on the coast of South Carolina but are landlocked. They rely on Frank to conjure the smell of pluff mud and the sounds of gulls.
And so Frank happily obliges. With her latest book, she ventures back to Sullivan’s Island for what she calls one of the most tender novels she’s penned, hitting on themes like “mother-daughter reconciliation, questions about aging, and deep and long-standing friendships.” The story centers on Jackie McMullen, an army nurse who loses her husband, Jimmy, a New York firefighter, in a blaze on the Lower East Side. Her son, Charlie, is devastated. “He’s really depressed,” Frank says. “And no matter what she does, she can’t seem to help him.”
In an act of desperation, Jackie decides to move back to Sullivan’s Island, where her mother, Annie Britt, still lives. Frank, who is extremely close with her daughter and son, says she has a hard time imagining what it would be like to be disconnected from her children, which led her to wonder what it would be like for a parent and child who were very different from one another.
“Jackie’s mother is this kind of flamboyant socialite, or as much as you can be on Sullivan’s Island. She’s the queen of Dunleavy’s, I guess,” she says, referring to a popular local pub. Annie is also a “fuss bucket,” which drives her daughter and husband crazy. “Annie is the type to show her love through cleaning and cooking and nitpicking,” Frank explains. “And they can’t stand it. They’d rather just have PB&Js.”
But the small island and its rich history provide a healing place for Charlie, who becomes engrossed by the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. Frank weaves in facts about the area’s rich past and cultural heritage through Charlie’s fascination, much the same way she did in Folly Beach with DuBose and Dorothy Heyward.
But Porch Lights is more about relationships, the healing powers of family bonds, and the idea that positive elements can come out of dark times. “In the end, it’s because of Jimmy’s death the family is able to come back together again,” Frank says.
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