It’s a pleasure to watch a relatively new author improve her skills with each release. In just four years, Mary Alice Monroe has become one of the genre’s leading Women’s Fiction writers, and The Beach House is her strongest effort yet. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ms. Monroe’s novels in hardcover soon - she could definitely give Kristin Hannah and Barbara Delinsky a run for their money.
The basic story - estranged daughter comes home and makes peace with her mother - may be familiar, but Monroe’s creative subplots elevate the book above the mundane. Cara Rutledge reluctantly agrees to honor her mother’s invitation to visit her at the family’s beach house. Cara hasn’t set foot in her native South Carolina for more than 20 years, after leaving home abruptly at age 18. But she’s just been fired from her high-powered Chicago advertising job, and needs time to regroup. The Isle of Palms doesn’t necessarily represent sanctuary to Cara - she’s still angry at her mother for failing to protect and cherish her sufficiently. So Cara plans to keep the visit brief and the conversations with her mother civil but distant.
Olivia “Lovie” Rutledge, however, has other plans. She urgently needs to reconnect with Cara before a fast-acting cancer claims her life. She’s also worried that Toy, the pregnant teenager who lives with her, will go back to her abusive boyfriend when Lovie isn’t around any longer to guide her. Most of all, Lovie worries about the loggerhead turtles that have given her summers a purpose for so many years. The leader of the island’s “Turtle Team,” Lovie tries to protect the endangered species by watching over the egg-laying, incubation and hatching processes. But the increasing amount of new construction on the island means fewer safe areas for the loggerheads.
Cara is stressed, exhausted and rather bitchy when she arrives at Lovie’s beach house. She is suspicious of both Lovie and the strange pregnant teenager who is getting more of her mother’s affection than Cara ever did. She especially resents those damn turtles that Lovie always seemed to care about more than her own daughter. But gradually the slow pace of the island allows Cara to examine her life, her priorities and her choices. She also encounters the handsome Brett Beauchamps, who pursues Cara with charm and determination. So maybe she’s ready for a fling, but a laid-back Low Country man could never fit in with her fast-paced Chicago lifestyle, and besides, at age 40 she’s too old to finally fall in love - isn’t she?
Although Cara finds romance with Brett, The Beach House is primarily a novel about women and their relationships. The female loggerhead turtle’s habit of returning to her birthplace after many years to lay eggs is used as a metaphor for Cara’s homecoming, but unlike the turtles who never know their offspring, there are years of misunderstandings and hurt feelings for Cara and Lovie to overcome. Lovie was not the perfect mother, but she tried to love Cara despite her own problems. Forgiveness is required from both mother and daughter, but they don’t wallow in the past. Together the Rutledge females use actions - fixing up the beach house, tending to the turtles - to demonstrate their growing bond. Cara undergoes the requisite growth from uptight, suspicious city girl to a woman at peace with herself, but I was surprised by the growth that Lovie also demonstrates in the last days of life.
Throughout the novel, Monroe’s delight in her adopted home state shines through in elegant, descriptive passages that never become too flowery or excessive. Her knowledge of the loggerheads is also based on personal experience, and she weaves information about their plight into the plot but never lectures or preaches.
With wise observations about friendship, love, aging and death, as well as expert plotting and strong, dynamic characters, The Beach House is Women’s Fiction at its best. It’s almost impossible to read the last chapter without bawling, but don’t worry, you will come away feeling uplifted, not depressed. Well done, Ms. Monroe, and tell your agent to start searching for that hardcover publisher.