Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Bulls Island / by Dorothea Benton Frank

Twenty years ago something happened that destroyed the happiness of two young people forever. Sweethearts since junior high school, Elizabeth "Betts" Magee and J.D. Langley of Charleston, S.C. were two recent college graduates who'd just become engaged. They were on their way to a storybook marriage when it all came crashing down (literally) one stormy summer night when a mean-spirited gesture by J.D.'s begrudging mother led to Betts' mother's untimely death. The engagement was effectually broken off and the relationship ended with Betts' taking a job offer in New York City and J.D. becoming a permanent part of the family real estate business. Twenty years later not a lot has changed with Betts living successfully in Manhattan ans a Wall Street investment handler and J.D., now married to a loveless wife, is still flourishing in the ever-lucrative enterprise of waterfront property developments. Only now fate has intervened to bring the couple back together again, even if the catalyst is one more of business than pleasure. The Langleys are planning development on the wildlife conservation area of Bulls Island and (supposedly) has the backing of Betts' own firm who's entrusted their interests with the Charleston gal herself, having given her orders to go down there smooth out any ripples in the deal. With the inevitable confrontation imminent, Betts does her best to prepare her nerves for meeting the man she's never gotten over and the huge secret she's never told anyone save her trusted friend back in New York. J.D. meanwhile is still stuck in his childless union to a drugged-out wife whien he hears of his former fiance's pending return and tries not to get his hopes up.

Low Country (coastal SC & Savannah, GA). It's kind of an "it" place now for popular fiction and the like, although you could probably say it has been for a while now--think Pat Conroy's Prince of Tides, John Jakes' Charleston, Anne Rivers Siddons' Low Country, Sue Monk Kidd's Secret Life of Bees, etc. Bulls Island is very low country, very much the south's South. It isn't too bad a book though, easy on the obligatory stereotypes, acceptably simple and not too formulaic. Of course this is a book about the South and no such novel would be complete without references to the heat, old rich families, overweight patriarchs, servants, religion, food, cigars, crooked politics or bourbon--all of which are duely noted well-within the book's first few chapters. You also get the sense that low country people take the past way too seriously, coercing some things which, love, fate, destiny or otherwise, just shouldn't be allowed to 'be'--J.D. and Betts' marriage for one. How else could anyone excuse J.D.'s mother's really, really wicked behavior? This might seem a bit overboard to some readers and you wonder why no one really stands up to her. Frank maybe could have been a little more creative in forcing her star-crossed pair apart than just resorting to a crabby, childish mother-in-law. Others may not mind it so much because of how much more interesting it helps the inherent drama play out and with the culmination of the plot. It's frankly (no pun intended) very pleasant to observe how well the author manages to move the story along with her fluid narrative. (FIC FRANK)

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