Desert Isle Keeper
The Beach House
Mary Alice Monroe’s The Beach House is profoundly moving, from the short prologue in which a woman feels sorrow and regret about her relationships with her now-grown children, to the final pages in which hope replaces sorrow.
Caretta Rutledge has been asked to visit her mother, Lovie, in their Lowcountry cottage at the beach. Though Cara has been estranged from her mother since she left home at age eighteen, she’s got some spare time on her hands after having been fired from her high-powered advertising job in Chicago where she has lived a rather cold and impersonal life, focused solely on career achievement.
All her resentments come flooding back after Cara arrives at the time-worn cottage and she escapes into sleep, awakening to discover that while her mother is not home, a pregnant teenager is, and the girl is living there. Cara’s immediate reaction is that yet again, her mother has put someone or something ahead of her own child. In her youth Cara resented her mother’s seeming abdication of maternal duties in favor of heading the Turtle Team, an annual project to protect loggerhead turtles in their annual spawn/birth cycle. As she grew older, her resentment grew when her mother failed to protect the family from the abuse of Cara’s now-dead father.
Cara’s plan for a short visit before heading back to Chicago and a job hunt changes when she learns the real reason behind her mother’s request that she visit: Lovie is dying of lung cancer and wants to heal the relationship with her daughter. Cara immediately agrees to spend the summer and decides that she will have her mother’s beloved cottage repaired. (Note to readers: this book would have been written long before the release of the very poignant movie, My Life as a House, starring Kevin Kline. If you enjoyed that movie, I think you’ll like the book, even though the focus in the movie is a race against time to build the house. If you like the book, please consider renting the movie.)
With her job search temporarily on hold, Cara becomes involved in her mother’s life and renews relationships with those from her past. She also begins a relationship with Brett Beauchamps, a local she’d had a crush on in high school who had always wanted to know the focused young Cara but never had the chance. Brett is something of a Renaissance Man, an educated man and naturalist who runs a tour business, works as a fisherman, is a protector of Southern women – and agrees to do the construction work necessary to renew Lovie’s cottage to its former glory.
Cara has never been involved with a man like Brett; because of her abusive father, her relationships with men had been as sterile as her condo overlooking Lake Michigan. But Brett is different; with him she feels safe and though she jokes about it, she discovers that having a man care about her is a good thing. While their relationship is sweet, Brett falls into the “slightly too good to be true” category. This is not a major problem given the book’s ending, but that’s about all I can divulge without spoiler territory.
As the book progresses, a number of other secondary characters make substantive appearances. First is Cara’s brother Palmer, who had also been abused by their father. He’s married to the perfect Southern wife and has two lovely children. Though he’s somewhat self-aware, he’s in danger of becoming the sort of man whose family will fear him. Then there’s the young pregnant woman – Toy – who Cara eventually takes under her wing even though she doesn’t understand the draw of this young woman to the man who impregnated and beat her upon occasion.
I’ve become fascinated over the last year or so with Southern Fiction, those books in which the South is both poison to a person and at the same time, a tonic that eventually heals. While The Beach House isn’t filled with colorful Lowcountry dialect, its southern-ness is nonetheless always there. The snippets of information about loggerhead turtles that begin each chapter are engaging and I actually found myself looking forward to them. They juxtaposed perfectly with the novel’s exploration of relationships lost, found, and created.
Cara’s thaw throughout that last hot South Carolina summer of her mother’s life makes for a truly wonderful read. The mother-daughter relationship that in real life is often fraught with difficulty is a subject tackled in many books – some more successfully than others. Cara and Lovie’s story is one which explores strengths and weaknesses, the kind of strengths that become weaknesses and the type of weak moments that lead to great moments of strength of character and courage. There are no medical miracles for Lovie, but the time spent with her daughter, with Toy, with her grandbabies, and with the turtles she looks over will surely melt your bones as you read the evocative prose of The Beach House.