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Keeping it light in the Lowcountry
Dorothea Benton Frank focuses on the funny side of life
As a young girl growing up on remote Sullivan's Island in the South Carolina Lowcountry, Dorothea Benton Frank's lifeline to the world came in the unlikely guise of a clattering old bookmobile.
Impatient by nature, Dot Frank wasn't much of a student, but she was a voracious reader. When that mobile library pulled up in front of her mother's house, she would run to check out her three-book limit, read them all in one day, then fuss and stew until the old clunker returned two weeks later.
Frank's considerable kinetic energy, if not her study habits, eventually carried her through the Fashion Institute of America in Atlanta and into a globetrotting career as a fashion buyer and representative. She lived in San Francisco, traveled frequently to Europe and Asia, and worked for a decade on Seventh Avenue in New York's Garment District.
She wasn't writing a novel, she was living one.
But when her mother died in 1993, Frank was devastated.
"There wasn't any real way for me to deal with my grief because I was in New Jersey without any family members," she recalls by phone from her home in Montclair, New Jersey. "My sister and brother live in South Carolina and two of my other brothers live in Texas and Boston. So I began writing to try to put all my feelings down on paper."
A friend stopped over, inquired about the growing monolith of typed pages next to Frank's word processor, and encouraged her to take a creative writing course at nearby Bloomfield College. Before long, the Lowcountry had a new literary phenom, a Pat Conroy-lite, a princess of tides.
Frank can't quite believe her good fortune as she prepares to plunge into hardbound fiction with her third novel, Isle of Palms, after hitting the New York Times bestseller list with her first two paperbacks, Sullivan's Island (2000) and Plantation (2001).
"I'm terrified!" she gasps. "It's pretty safe when you're just writing mass market paperbacks, but when you go into hardcovers, you get reviewed. Oh my God, please don't review me! Because you know it's not going to be good. I hope I'm dead for a thousand years before [Times critic] Michiko Kakutani knows that I ever drew a breath. Did you ever read her reviews? Oh, God help me!"
Frank's apprehension is understandable. Lowcountry literature, even in the hands of a Conroy or Anne Rivers Siddons, has always fared better with readers than critics, who tend to dismiss it, justly or not, as melodramatic and maudlin.
Isle of Palms (the real one is situated just across a causeway from Sullivan's Island) concerns the midlife flowering of Anna Lutz Abbot, an independent-minded salon owner who has learned how to hold her tongue over a teasing comb to keep her clientele coming back.
When she was 10, Anna lost her mother. Her domineering grandmother forced Anna's father, Douglas, to sell their beloved family home on Isle of Palms and move to Charleston. Come summer, after years of living with her father, Anna is finally ready to return to Isle of Palms and open her own salon.
But the island holds plenty of housewarming surprises for Anna: her daughter Emily returns from college as a rebellious, tattooed teen; her new best friend Lucy begins dating Douglas; her gay ex-husband Jim has outrageous plans for the salon, and her new main squeeze Arthur (a Yankee!) has commitment phobia.
Overseeing all the comings and goings in true Southern neighborly fashion are Miss Angel and Miss Mavis, "ladies of a certain age" whose running commentary on Anna's life rings hilariously true.
Beneath the Fannie Flagg-style jocularity and small-town anecdotes lies a more serious subject: loneliness. This unlikely cast of characters forms an ad hoc family to fill the void left by less-than-perfect biological ones.
"There are a lot of divorced people who also need a way to connect: a Sunday dinner they can count on or, when they get sick, somebody to be at their side, or when they're worried about something they have someone to call. There are a lot of people who don't have anyone," says Frank.
"I get e-mail from people who say, 'I read seven or eight books a week,' and I think, my God, what's going on with your life? I think we have become a society of people who are never going to live up to that mythology of families and children and everybody staying in the same place and going to Grandmama's on Sunday. That's just not how life is anymore and so people have had to make changes. This book sort of tells them that this is OK."
Frank's life has eerie parallels to that of her friend and neighbor Conroy: they both hail from large Irish Catholic families, suffered intense personal traumas growing up (Conroy's father was The Great Santini; Frank's died in front of her eyes of a heart attack when she was 4) and have ties to the Citadel (Conroy and her father's alma mater). Coincidentally, they even own matching pairs of Cavalier King Charles spaniels.
"I'm sort of like his evil sister," she chuckles. "Switched at birth or something."
But unlike Conroy, who overtly battles his innermost demons in his work, Frank intentionally keeps things light for those who want to visit the Lowcountry without tears.
"I understand that my first job as a writer is to entertain. You have to write a story that people are going to want to keep turning the pages," she says.
"If you look deeper, there are other themes in Isle of Palms. If I've entertained you, I've done a good job. If I've entertained you and given you something to talk about with somebody else, I've done a better job. If I've entertained you and given you something to talk about, and at the end of the day you have changed yourself a little bit, I've done a very good job."
Jay MacDonald lives and writes in Mississippi.