The Southern Side of Paradise
Some books work best when read in the context of a series. Kristy Woodson Harvey’s The Southern Side of Paradise pretty much follows this rule to the letter, because – while the antics of the characters amuse and we’re given a handy recap to start the proceedings – it ends up feeling incomplete because of its series placement and inability to fully explain its world to new readers.
Ansley Murphy is just starting to settle back into life in Peachtree Bluff, and things seem to be going her way at last. A 9/11 widow who moved her three daughters from New York to the summer home her grandmother left her in Georgia, she has re-learned the cadence of the town, and most of her three now-grown daughter’s relationship dramas seem to be ironed out. Ansley, too, is finally moving on with her life and going out with her first love, Jack – who happens to be the biological daughter of all of her kids but her youngest daughter Emerson – and is happily running her business.
Emerson is considering abandoning a successful mainstream acting career and moving back to Peachtree Bluff after becoming serious with Mark, her longtime boyfriend but instead of contentment all she feels is ambivalence. Yet when he proposes, she asks him for time to think, but then immediately throws caution to the wind and accepts, despite her uncertainty.
Caroline and Sloane, Emerson’s sisters, descend on Peach Tree Bluff to help her plan the wedding, while Ansley’s brothers pack up their recently deceased mother’s home in Florida. Emerson is hiding a secret only practical Caroline knows – on top of her ambivalence about the wedding, she’s putting off getting a final diagnosis for what might be aplastic anemia. Then Emerson has a chance encounter with Kyle, a handsome coffee shop owner, and begins to question her commitment to Mark. But there are three more secrets floating around the Murphy family – one about the older daughter’s paternity, one about Jack’s marital status, and another Emerson is carrying around, one that she daren’t let her family find out about that concerns her grandmother’s death.
The Southern Side of Paradise starts out as a light-hearted, breezy read, in which motherhood is the best and most frustrating but giving reward. Then it introduces plotlines about cancer, infidelity and assisted suicide, revealing its roots as a classic-style weepie beach read. Unfortunately it’s such a typical piece of Southern Women’s Fiction that it manages to do nothing original or interesting with its central concepts. Caught between moods, it leans too heavily on its breezy feeling, making its major plot points feel minor.
A big problem with the narrative is the author’s tendency towards info-dumping. Two books’ worth of backstory is dumped on readers in breathless paragraphs; for instance, a single page in the first chapter is loaded with no less than twenty pieces of character information. This can be dizzying for newcomers to the story and comes off as rejected ad copy for the books in the series I haven’t read! These events may have been shocking! And bold! But you don’t have to sell them to me, author. Just relate them to me and I’ll decide if they’re as bold as you claim they are.
While Harvey’s prose is generally competent, the pace of the book is far, far too fast to make a proper impact, and the characters are ultimately the book’s biggest problem. Ansley is a hand-wringing, overly emotional worrywart keeping ancient secrets that ultimately don’t bother any of the principals. It’s hard to sympathize with her over her angst when she and Jack cheated on their spouses.
Emerson gets stuck in a monotonous loop as she tries to choose between Kyle and Mark. Mark is a nice, kind guy, but he’s bland – Kyle is so much more exciting. He remembers her coffee order! Makes her laugh at the stars. You know where this is going to go.
Caroline and Sloane’s stories feel, on the whole, completely finished (and perhaps they were in the first two books). They show up to act as supporting players for Emerson’s story, but drive no story points of their own beyond nodding their heads amiably about the paternity plot. The book’s PoV is split between Ansley and Emerson, and the fact that we don’t have the privilege of getting into either of the other girls’ heads hampers their stories.
In the end this isn’t the worst book I’ve read, but it’s also nowhere near the best. If you want a cozy, somewhat predictable read, The Southern Side of Paradise will likely fit the bill, and fans of the series may enjoy what feels like a major pay-off for all of the series’ characters and themes. But as-is, I can’t really recommend it.
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Lisa Fernandes is a writer, reviewer and recapper who lives somewhere on the East Coast. Formerly employed by Firefox.org and Next Projection, she also currently contributes to Women Write About Comics. Read her blog at http://thatbouviergirl.blogspot.com/, follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thatbouviergirl or contribute to her Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/MissyvsEvilDead or her Ko-Fi at ko-fi.com/missmelbouvier