I didn’t enjoy this book. I feel like I should say that right off the bat because I know that each person’s feelings about a book are very unique, and I could not stand to read a review of Love in the Time of Cholera written by someone who did not absolutely adore it.
Moving on, I just finished The Beach Trees by Karen White
I didn’t know anything at all about it except that it was September’s book club selection, so my original one line review as I was finishing the book was going to be, “Good story gets bogged down by immature writing style.” Imagine my surprise when the last page of my Kindle edition informed me that White is the author of 14 other novels. Oops. I’ve not heard of any save The Memory of Water, but I didn’t read that, and don’t know much about it.
I’m not sure where to start, so I suppose I’ll begin with what first struck me. I did not enjoy the writing. It’s very descriptive, but the descriptions often left me more confused about the mood White was trying to create. There are countless metaphors and inner musings that are intended to come across as sage advice, but I found them mostly meaningless. It reads like a thriller written by a romance novelist though even the romance is lackluster.
Secondly, there is way too much going on in this book. It’s about grown woman dealing with the childhood abduction of her sister. It’s about being thrust into the role of caregiver to the young son of a recently deceased best friend. It’s about New Orleans post hurricane Katrina. It’s about a family dealing with the disappearance of a sister and granddaughter (no, not the same sister). It’s about an older woman coming to terms with the death of her mother and husband. It’s about a dark and seedy family history. Too many things.
I’m not going to harp on what I consider wrong about each piece of that puzzle because Karen White has published 15 books, and I will probably be late on publishing this post, but to say the book lacks cohesion would be an understatement.
The mystery part of the story is okay, but not terribly thrilling. Within the first twenty pages I had an idea of where the book was going in my head, but figured there had to be some twists and turns thrown in there. There weren’t. It sometimes feels like the trivial details of the book (the timeline, the family tree) are purposefully confusing so as to distract from the fact that the shocking conclusion is actually pretty straightforward.
Not one character (except maybe the 5-year-old) behaves in a way any reasonable person would expect any other reasonable person to behave. I had a hard time visualizing any character because they seem more like aliens than actual humans based on their descriptions and actions. The main character, initially described as mature and urbane having come most recently from New York attends her first Mardi Gras parade. While there, someone hands her a steaming bowl of stew over rice to which she asks, “What is this?” only to be told that it is, of course, gumbo. What kind of grown woman would have to ask in that situation? Am I being presumptuous here?
Perhaps what bothered me the most was the author’s conception and presentation of time. It seems so silly to say, but the timing of the book made no sense. Most of the story is told through flashbacks, (a point which is a problem in itself: the flashback portions alone could have been fleshed out to provide a nice little mystery; the rest was superfluous) but the way the flashbacks are told to the present-day characters makes no sense. In order to provide ample “story telling time” the author makes it seem like all the characters are always either eating or in the car. We rarely sleep. We rarely work. We all just drive from point A to point B and then eat dinner. Here’s why this is confusing: while waiting at a traffic light, the speaker will present what would amount to 45 minutes of real time story telling. As the same two characters sit down for some piping hot chocolate, the speaker reveals a section of her tale that could not possibly amount to more than 3 minutes of talking yet the author informs us that both women have finished their hot chocolate and are ready for more. Maybe traffic lights are very long in the bayou, and maybe those women enjoy burnt mouths, but I doubt it. It just doesn’t make sense and is disorienting to say the least.
I’m going to end with what I like, but I’ll first touch on an issue I don’t have the authority to speak on extensively, but should at least mention. The book is set in New Orleans after Katrina (more on that in a minute). The main characters are white, and the author’s treatment of the two black main characters is not great. They are stereotyped to the point where it made me a little uncomfortable to read. The author must have feared this because there is a totally random encounter with a black US Army veteran thrown in (there was really no need to mention that she was black) that seems to make a case that White is trying to be well rounded in her treatment of minorities. I don’t know really. Read it for yourself and tell me what you think.
Anyway, back to the good. The author’s treatment of New Orleans and the surrounding gulf coast is really well done. I read on her Wikipedia that she went to Tulane, and that most of her books are set in the Southeast. She seems to really love the area. I’ve never been but the people and places are described so beautifully that it really made me want to visit.
Fewer competing story lines, more well rounded characters and greater attention to detail could have made a world of difference for this book. As it stands, it’s not a good read.