Review: Heart of Palm by Laura Lee Smith

Review: Heart of Palm by Laura Lee Smith

Laura Lee Smith’s beautifully crafted novel, Heart of Palm is long, 449 pages, and each page illuminates the Bravo family, their home and Florida’s landscape. It captivated me with lovely language and beautiful storytelling. It’s alive, vibrant with a sense of  the people and place.

With each new twist in the novel, my admiration for Heart of Palm grew.

Heart of Palm brought me into the lives of the Bravo family, a family that at its core is like many families: difficult to define or understand, sometimes dysfunctional, yet complex with layers of love and hurt melding together. Its charm comes from characters and setting.

This is the Bravo family. Their world. Their uniqueness.

The Bravos live outside of St. Augustine, Florida in the fictional village of Utina. Their rickety and once-grand home, Aberdeen, stands along an intracoastal waterway that ebbs and flows to a slow southern rhythm. Named for the chief of the Utina tribe, the land of oaks and Spanish moss is enchantingly beautiful. Now it slowly slides into the 21st century with a culture solidly entrenched in the past. 

Real estate developers have no interest in the town’s colorful history. Instead, they have cast a hungry eye on the land, especially the Bravo’s: a marina, restaurants, Starbucks—ah, the endless possibilities to make money. The natural land must bend to progress as the moneyed class sees it. 

The plot develops less from this pull of money and more unfurls from the Bravo family, of how each has a secret that slowly unwinds toward resolution. As a result,  rather than focus on the plot of Heart of Palm, I wanted to discuss the unusual cast of characters from this novel. (Don’t worry--all of these details are revealed early on.)

Arla Bravo, the once very rich, beautiful and cultured matriarch of the Bravo family, now in her early sixties is still a statuesque woman with long, flowing red hair. Heads turn at her striking beauty. 

At eighteen she fell in love and left her rich family from St. Augustine to marry a ne’er-do-well, Dean Bravo. He brought excitement and romance into her life with his handsome face, rakish smile, audacious personality and his pure love for Arla.

The promise of a fairytale life ended on their honeymoon when Dean, who knew little about waterskiing or manning a speedboat, took his accomplished and beautiful bride out on a lake. He drove while she held the rope and flew across the water.

It ended in tragedy. 

The graceful Arla lost all of her toes and part of her left foot that day. With the pluck that marked her life, she forgave Dean. Still beautiful, she hobbled  about with a cane and raised four children whom she loved with a fierce passion. 

Dean stayed at her side until one day he didn’t. He walked out with no explanation, leaving her to continue life in the old house he’d named Aberdeen. 

Nevertheless, his presence hovered over Aberdeen and his family. Like all of Smith’s characters, he’s not simple. I didn’t like him early in the story but as the story develops, my dislike faded. His humanity becomes clear when he returns home after a twenty year absence.

Sofia, Arla’s only daughter, is 40 and lives at home. She’s deemed not completely sane or very bright. I couldn’t see anything wrong with her. Living a sweet life along the river, not venturing out into the working world--what’s wrong with that? 

Regardless, she’s an enigma with a secret night life. 

Swimming gives her great joy. It’s the one skill that brings her both pride and pleasure. Late at night when everyone else sleeps, she stands on the bank of the water looking at the intracoastal waterway; she sheds her clothing and dives into the water where she luxuriates in the sensual joy of movement, of the cool, alluring water; she  swims for miles with only Spanish moss, oaks and palms for company.

The two Bravo brothers, Frank and Carson, took divergent paths in their lives. 

Carson’s all about Ponzi schemes and making money, often without conscience. Frank bought a bar and grill  name Uncle Henry’s that’s within walking distance of his and his mother’s properties. Always with his old and devoted dog at his side, he lives a peaceful life. His Uncle Henry’s is as inviting as Carson’s Ponzi schemes are off-putting.

These disparate brothers have two things in common. They love Carson’s wife Elizabeth and they live with the pain of the death of their younger brother.

Will, the deceased brother, has a presence in the novel: regret. Those many years ago, what part did his brother’s actions  play in his death? What choices made by his older brothers, led him to walk alone one night along a dark and dangerous road, his senses dulled by alcohol? Through vignettes interspersed throughout, you learn the truth.

Arla does not know the details behind her son’s death, but after all’s said and done, her heart belongs to the land, to memories, to Aberdeen. She feels the pull of the land, her children and the life she loves as she contemplates what the results of selling her land, if she decides to do so, will mean to herself and her family.

Oh, what a lovely place this was, Utina. Sweet and wild and rare. She [Arla] was not surprised that the rich people wanted to live here. She’d never appreciated Utina as much as she should have, and she knew that now, here in the woods was where it was best of all, this little stretch of Aberdeen, where the ghosts of all the palms that had lived and died still flitted lovely and light through the canopy, where the aches of lost loves dissolved and the searing pain of death cooled. 

In the spot where Arla sat thinking these thoughts of Aberdeen, she spoke to her old friend Drusilla. She whispered her deepest, closely held thoughts to her phantom confidant.

Arla discovered her friend early in life at Aberdeen when she came upon a grave marked with Drusilla’s name. Over the years she would sit with Drusilla, speak with her of all that had come to pass in her life. Drusilla was Arla’s lone friend embodied in a stone grave marker in the midst of Aberdeen’s woods.

The vivid characters combine to weave a magical story that flows from the beauty and complexity of Smith’s writing.

The plot’s simplicity highlights the boldness and beauty of the writing giving the family and the place center stage: losing myself in the pages of a book, caring about the characters, feeling in awe of the writing and the setting, believing in a world created within the folds of a beautifully crafted novel.

For all of these qualities, Laura Lee Smith’s debut novel Heart of Palm is one of my favorites of 2013.

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Disclosure: Review copy received from the publisher.

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