Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Review: On Folly Beach by Karen White

Even though I am now a Southerner (well, a Yankee transplant if we're being 100 percent accurate), I am not terribly familiar with southern beaches or islands. Life just conspires to keep me in my inland bubble. But that doesn't mean I don't think about the appeal of these places now well within driving distance of my house. So when I saw the premise of Karen White's On Folly Beach, I was definitely intrigued. That there were parallel story lines, one current and one set during World War II, made it that much more attractive.

Opening in Indiana in 2009 with Emmy unable to sleep, certain down to the marrow of her bones that her beloved husband Ben has been killed in Afghanistan, the book then moves back in time to 1942 and Folly Beach. Both threads of the novel deal with loss and acceptance and eventually come together nicely.

Emmy's mother, who hails from Folly Beach, SC pushes Emmy to buy the small bookstore on the island as a way of encouraging her to accept Ben's life and to move on. What convinces Emmy to do what her mother wants is the mystery she discovers in a box of books sent from the bookstore. There are books with notes written in them, some from a woman and some from a man but Emmy knows that she doesn't have the entirety of the correspondence and she is intrigued by the clandestine nature of the jottings, getting a frisson up her spine whenever she finds another one. And so her life as the proprieter of Folly's Finds commences with the stipulation that Lulu, the aunt-in-law of the current owner, be allowed to continue her bottle tree business out of the backyard of the bookstore.

Alternating chapters with Emmy's eventual reawakening to life is the story of Cat, Maggie, Lulu, and Peter during World War II. Cat, newly widowed, is eager to meeting new men, dancing with all the soldiers on Folly Beach who are waiting to be sent overseas. Her cousin Maggie is the quiet voice of reason who feels compelled to help Cat maintain a more decorous air if possible even while she is also responsible for younger sister, the eagle-eyed and observant Lulu. So when Peter comes into Folly's Finds, the small general store and bookstore that Maggie runs, and seems to have eyes only for Maggie, it seems as if happiness will finally come for Maggie.

As Emmy, in the present day, uncovers more and more about the people writing the notes in the old books, the WWII storyline comes closer and closer to its conclusion. The amazing thing about this book is that both storylines are equally weighted and well done. The characters in each part of the book are distinct and interesting. And as the narrative tension builds in one section, it is mirrored in the other, giving a cohesive feel to the book as a whole. Also included very organically is some interesting and seemingly little known WWII information that becomes an integral piece in the ultimate denouement of the historic portion of the story. White has created an engrossing read, one that not only offers up interesting new historical fact but is also right at home on the beach. Family, love, a 50 year old mystery coded in books, and the theme of renewal, what more can a reader ask for?

Thanks to Joy at Joan Schulhafer Publishing and Media Consulting for sending me a copy of the book to review.


  1. That sounds like a great book! I like books that go back and forth through history like that, and any book with a mystery told through book clues sounds good to me!

  2. I really enjoyed this novel. I'm glad you liked it.

  3. I'm glad to see you loved this one as much as I did!

    I hope it's okay to link to your review on War Through the Generations.


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