Return to Sullivan’s Island
By Dorothea Benton Frank
HarperCollins Publishers • 392 pages

In this latest book in Dorothea Benton Frank’s string of Lowcountry-themed novels, fans should get everything they’ve come to expect. Plenty of name-dropping of Charleston places and people, beautiful settings, steamy romances, and strong bonds between women.

Return to Sullivan’s Island follows Beth Hayes, a recent Boston College grad burdened with the responsibility of watching the family beach house while her mother goes to Paris and the rest of her family scatters across the country. Though she feels stifled by the assignment — and eager to start her career, she has a deep affection for her tight-knit family and is determined to make the most of the year.

Beth eventually lands two jobs, one at Atlanticville Restaurant and the other at Island Eye News. While at the Island Eye, Beth writes a hard-hitting piece on development and gentrification on the South Carolina coast. And, that’s when things get messy.

Beth falls in love with the 40-something developer who recently demolished a favorite bar and has plans to build a shiny new shopping center in the tavern’s place. To make matters worse, not only does Beth fall for the developer when all signs point to no (including a warning from a ghost — did we mention the beach house was haunted?), but she makes some pretty stupid decisions involving her trust fund that threaten her relationship with her family. Ah, youth.

All in all, it’s Frank’s depiction of Beth, a modern young woman, that makes this novel a little unbearable. And Frank’s attempt at the dialogue of a college-educated woman is borderline offensive. Case in point, Beth takes her man-friend to Fulton Five. Here’s what happens:

“ ’The food’s supposed to be really delicious, too,’ she said. Normally Beth might have said, It’s supposed to be totally hardcore, or The tiramisu is seriously fabulous, but that night, acutely aware of their age difference, Beth was making a conscious effort to bridge that gap.” Hey, Dotty. When’s the last time you actually spoke to a college girl?

Although Return to Sullivan’s Island, continues to be peppered with random question marks and annoying colloquialisms, the dialogue does improve as Beth finds more confidence — a magical haircut and contact lenses help, of course. (Hello, ubiquitous makeover scene!) The idea here is that Beth is maturing, but the truth is she doesn’t. Beth continues to make painfully bad decisions almost to the end of the book. The overall effect is a main character who is difficult to sympathize or identify with.

For someone a little bleary-eyed by the romanticism of the Lowcountry, this book might work. But for a young woman who lives here, it only worked enough for me to be able to make it to the end. —Erica Jackson