Desert Isle Keeper
The Strawberry Hearts Diner
As we head into the heart of summer, Carolyn Brown gives us a good reason to stretch out under a shady tree and take in an incredibly beautiful story of a sleepy southern town, the citizens who live there and the lives they live in the gorgeous novel The Strawberry Hearts Diner.
Jancy Wilson is looking for a fresh start when she stops in Picks, Texas to visit her grandmother’s grave. Jancy had an itinerant childhood following the wanderings of her father, and Picks – where her mother and grandmother were born and raised and where Jancy spent a chunk of her teenage years – is a place that holds memories both sweet and sour for her. She hasn’t been in town for six years, and she’s not planning on staying for another six minutes; homeless, jobless, orphaned and now fresh off of probation, she’s got plans to hightail it to New Iberia, Louisiana, and the home of a cousin who will put her up while she gets her life together. It’s chance, and chance alone that causes her car to break down in front of the Strawberry Hearts Diner, a restaurant of which she has multiple fond memories.
It just so happens that Vicky Rawlins and her surrogate mother, Nettie, the diner’s owners, have been looking for a waitress when Jancy’s car goes up in flames outside of Strawberry Hearts. Both of them know Jancy from her youth – Jancy, in fact, went to school with Vicky’s daughter Emily and played the unpopular wallflower to Emily’s popular cheerleader – and they’re happy to hire her, even if she’s only willing to stick around long enough to get together enough money for a bus ticket. Jancy fits in so well that she soon finds herself at home in Picks – and attracting the attention of the handsome and sweet-natured mechanic Shane Adams, whom she’s had a crush on for years and vice-versa.
Meanwhile, Vicky battles off the oily business maneuvers of Carlton Wolfe, who wants to buy and redevelop most of Picks – including the diner – into tract housing. She also finds herself warming to the flirtation of handsome cowboy baker-slash-entrepreneur Andy Butler, who wants to take her homemade tart business statewide by selling her famous pastries in his shops. And blunt, frank-minded Nettie battles a health crisis while charming widower, Woody.
Just as Jancy starts to settle in, Emily returns home from college for the summer. While Jancy is a bit wary, Emily offers Jancy a hand in friendship, tries to keep a bunch of big secrets from Vicky, and starts flirting with her old high-school acquaintance, the roguish off-shore oil rigger Ryder. As Jancy’s relationship with Shane gets more serious and Wolfe’s machinations become more predatory, Jancy soon has to choose between spending her life in the same way as her itinerant father or putting down roots in Picks for good.
Lulling, pretty and altogether hypnotic, The Strawberry Heart Diner weaves its magic over the reader in a way that’s almost transcendent. If you’re at all familiar with small town life you’ll recognize these characters, scrabbling with smaller means, with disappointments and broken dreams behind them but goals and hopes and plans for the future still tucked to their hearts. I loved the sisterhood between Vicky, Jancy, Emily and Nettie; the way they look out for each other, and the way they each have to learn to let go a little bit and let each other make their own choices.
Vicky and Jancy split the narrative duty pretty much evenly, and the disparity in their points of view provides a pretty interesting story – the difference between young and scared and experienced and spunky. Jancy’s romance with Shane is heart stoppingly, breathlessly sweet and tender, while Vicky and Andy’s relationship is quieter, more mature, but no less charming. Emily and Ryder’s, however, feels slightly underdeveloped – which is likely an intentional choice for a plot related reason I won’t reveal. Yet their union seems rushed, and could have used a pinch more work.
Brown’s folksy tone is warm and heartfelt, though occasionally it indulges in a little bit of telling instead of showing. Yet there’s an appeal to the way it’s written that evokes emotion without getting overly soppy; there’s a beautiful spare sense of life lived to it, and Brown’s characters feel impressively real.
This isn’t a novel that’s super heavy on plot, which is its main weakness, though the narrative tension that comes from the Carlton storyline does help keep things moving. The book’s strength is its characters and their development, the pictures it paints of life lived by women who dwell within its borders, and if you’re in the right mood you’ll be able to smell those strawberry tarts baking.
The Strawberry Hearts Diner is one of the best novels I’ve read this year. If you enjoy movies like Steel Magnolias but don’t want to bawl your eyes out reading about a small southern town, you’ll love it. Pick it up, find yourself a cold glass of lemonade and let a summer afternoon while on by as it unfolds before you.