Desert Isle Keeper
Some authors write character based stories, some write plot based ones. Beatriz Williams writes great characters and places them within a gripping plot. Such is the case with her latest novel, Cocoa Beach. Although most of her books are standalones she is able to uniquely link her novels through a shared universe.
Fans will probably connect the dots between this latest and her previous novels. The Florida villa featured in this one was built in the 1920s in Along The Infinite Sea. Oliver Marshall, the prohibition official, became a central character in The Wicked City. Cocoa Beach can be viewed as a sequel to A Certain Age, in which Virginia Fortescue the female lead in this story was a supporting character who, at the end of that novel, dashed off to Florida. A set of mysterious letters was first introduced in A Certain Age, too, allowing readers to wonder if all is not as it appears; and readers first learned about the backstory of Virginia’s father, accused of killing his wife, Virginia’s mother.
Cocoa Beach begins with Virginia, overburdened by her father’s actions, fleeing to the battlefields of France in 1917 to become an ambulance driver. While there, she meets a British army surgeon, Captain Simon Fitzwilliam, who sweeps her off her feet during their passionate love affair. After they marry, she discovers he has many dark secrets and may have ulterior motives for marrying her. Eventually his history drives Virginia to leave him and head home to her family in New York. But there are more complications when she finds herself pregnant and bears Simon’s child, Evelyn. In 1922, five years after first meeting him, she receives word that Simon perished in a Florida fire. She travels with their daughter to Cocoa Beach to settle his affairs and find out the cause of his death – and to discover if the rumors she has heard about his having been a rum smuggler are true. Unwilling to listen to the warnings of Oliver Marshall, and because she does not believe her husband is really dead, she begins to unravel the evidence. She elicits the help of Simon’s brother Samuel and his sister Clara, only to discover they also are not whom they seem to be. This puts her life and the life of her young daughter in danger as she continues to face challenges in attempting to solve the mystery surrounding Simon’s death while staying at the Florida villa, Maitland Plantation.
Virginia is one of the few characters in the story whose intentions are not questioned, since she is a decent and good person. But she also presents something of a dichotomy. On the one hand, she is independent and self-sufficient, with a quiet strength that emerges during times of crisis. But on the other, she is gullible, sheltered, and damaged, especially after being betrayed by the men she loved, her father and husband.
Readers will waver in their feelings towards Virginia’s’ father, her husband Simon, and brother-in-law Samuel, wondering who is good and who is evil. On the surface Simon is charismatic and personable, but later comes across as a callous, manipulative liar. Samuel appears to be caring, concerned, and out to protect Virginia, but it becomes obvious that he has long resented playing second fiddle to Simon throughout his life.
Although the relationship between Simon and Virginia is central to the story, the actual time they spend together is small, and instead, readers understand their feelings through the unread letters written to Virginia by Simon. As in all Williams’ books, the jumping off point is the artifacts. Here, it is the letters that set the tone of the story, help to enhance the mystery, and contribute to the overarching theme of trust versus betrayal.
In many ways the setting of Cocoa Beach is a secondary character, with its beautiful beaches and evocative name. In fact, the dedication in the book is to “the land of Florida – its dreamers, builders, its mavericks, and its scoundrels.” It is centrally located to allow for a tropical setting, while at the same time close enough to Cuba to have liquor smugglers.
Readers will be absorbed by and immersed in the time period. Woven into the narrative are threads concerning the treatment of women in society, and how World War I helped them to gain suffrage rights by joining the workforce. Unlike in The Wicked City, prohibition is not the meat of the story, although its presence helps to move the action along and to show how the modern era begins with a huge change in social customs and manners.
Beatriz Williams combines her different themes – romance, mystery, murder, prohibition, infidelity – in a suspenseful manner and takes a good look at the eternal struggle of truth versus lies. With all its twists, turns, tensions and dangers, Cocoa Beach is a riveting read and one I’m recommending highly.
~ Elise Cooper