Whether you like Sullivan’s Island or not depends on how well you like authors like Pat Conroy and Anne Rivers Siddons. If you know their work, this book will be a comfortable read, with familiar themes and settings but with more humor and less emotional gut-wrenching.
The prologue to Sullivan’s Island made me think that I was in for more of a First Wive’s Club sort of book, as forty-something Susan catches her husband in bed with a nubile young thing. When he then leaves Susan, she is shocked and devastated, but still quick-witted enough to take a few vengeful steps of her own. As the book settled down and the story began unwinding, however, my mental image of Bette Midler as Susan morphed into someone less raucous and more introspective, like Susan Sarandon.
As Susan mulls over the failures of her marriage and tries to make a new start in life, she digs through her family’s past on the small island just outside Charleston. On Sullivan’s Island, Susan learned to be wary of love’s vicious, hurtful side, as she and her siblings supported each other in the face of an intermittently abusive father and a completely self-absorbed mother. Her truest role model, looking back, is the saintly Livvie, the black Gullah woman who watched out for the children, imposed realistic discipline on them, and taught them important lessons of life. The resulting narrative wanders between the key events of 1963-1964 when Susan was thirteen, and the present day.
I really enjoyed this book. While the terrain it works has already been well-mined, it’s nevertheless a type of story that I enjoy sinking into. It’s rich in details of Charleston and “Geechee” island life, including food, housing, folklore, dialect and custom. The story unwinds in an appropriately leisurely fashion, with modern-day Susan becoming more hopeful and self-assured as she learns to stand on her own feet and even provide support to her ex-husband.
While I recommend this as a very good read, there is nothing really new to the story. All the characters were stock members of modern Southern ensemble drama – the adulterers, the alcoholics, the ones who cope with humor, the nice people who turn out to be bigots. The scenes, too, were familiar: the hurricane that mirrors the inner turmoil of the family, the big makeover for the abandoned wife, the showdown with the abusive father, and so on.
And this leads to the larger weakness of this book, the saintly and stereotypical character of Livvie. Where every other character has selfish or mean moments, Livvie rises above it all, dispensing wisdom, love, and Gullah folk traditions to her white charges. As soothing and comfortable as this can be on one level (wouldn’t everyone like to know someone as calm and wise as that?), on another I was quite uncomfortably aware of the long-time tradition in white southern writing of the wise and harmless “good Negro.” I found myself ultimately wishing for more challenge from Livvie and more insight from Susan as a grown-up. I wanted to see Susan grow beyond her “why do people have to hate each other?” thirteen-year-old self’s philosophy. For all her retrospective adulation of Livvie, it never occurs to Susan to notice that Livvie is virtually the only Black person in her life, then or now. Despite the momentary challenges of the civil rights movement, modern-day Susan is comfortably ensconced in an all white, middle class milieu.
In the end, though, Sullivan’s Island is an impressive accomplishment for this first-time author. If you have any fondness for Southern melodrama and casts of characters dysfunctional enough to make Jerry Springer’s guests appear normal, you will definitely want to check this book out. It’s rather amazing that it was published as a mass market paperback rather than a trade or hardcover. Take advantage of this bargain while you can, because this author will certainly be in hardcover the next time out.