The mother of reinvention blends her own experience into a new novel
When Dorothea Benton Frank's mother died, her family's old beach house on Sullivan's Island went up for sale. Frank wanted to buy it. Well, she wanted her husband to buy it, and when he wouldn't, she pitched a little temper tantrum about the size of Russia, the author says.
So she told him she was going to write a bestseller, sell a million copies and buy back her mother's house. She started writing about her childhood on Sullivan's Island, a then sparsely developed barrier island off the coast of South Carolina. Out of that came her first book, Sullivan's Island: A Low Country Tale. Writing that book helped Frank deal with the death of her mother and the loss of her childhood space.
It was also a bet she placed on herself and won. Sullivan's Island did sell a million copies. Frank chased that success with six more books. Her work continues to explore the same themes of childhood memories, loss and, above all, the beautiful islands of South Carolina, that made her first novel successful. Now Frank has drawn on her experience of reinventing herself in her 40s to bring her growing readership The Land of Mango Sunsets.
The novel features Miriam Swanson, a late-40s desperado who is barely clinging to a joyless New York high society lifestyle. Married at 18, Miriam now finds herself bitter and demoralized by a messy divorce. She fought gracelessly against the rift and drove a wedge between herself and her beloved sons, her future daughter-in-law and her grandchildren. With no college degree and no career to buffer the blow, Miriam's days stretch out in a series of desperate, panic-ridden moments. Miriam strives valiantly against this fate, hoping to balance the scales through volunteer work at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which throws her among elite society's grandest dames. In one of the novel's most horrific and hilarious moments, Miriam stumbles, falls and spills an urn full of coffee on hundreds of laboriously handwritten invitations.
But Frank doesn't paint Miriam in purely dark or tragic strokes. Instead, her story is infused with funk and humor. She takes refuge in her pet parrot Harry who periodically lambastes Miriam's ex with the chant Charles is a horse's ass. Miriam also takes comfort in a platonic friendship with her tenant Kevin Dolan, who is by all measures a saint, a devoted friend and an exceptional drinking buddy. Miriam and Kevin jump headfirst into the lives of Miriam's second tenant, a naive young woman named Liz, whose dalliance with a married man turns into a dangerous liaison without warning.
Miriam, Kevin and Liz form what Frank calls a chosen family, something she thinks is becoming more typical as people move further away from their families and their roots. "A lot of people I know don't have a stitch of family around them, don't have a relative within 500 miles. Those people you run around with become your chosen family," Frank says.
Miriam's life of quiet stagnation comes quickly to an end after her disaster at the Met. That disgrace is the catalyst for sweeping life change, and it begins with a return to Sullivan's Island, which is as much Miriam's childhood home as it is Frank's. Will Miriam reinvent herself as successfully as her author did? "You'll have to read The Land of Mango Sunsets to find out."
We're not spoiling your surprise. But we will say that Frank admits she drew on her own ability to make big changes late in the game. She had a lucrative career importing garments from Korea and Hong Kong. Then, after her mother's death, she taught herself to write novels and succeeded at that, too. In her latest novel, Frank draws on her extensive knowledge of the garment industry as inspiration for the career of Kevin, a window display designer for a high-end New York department store.
And Frank also draws on her own extensive experience as a volunteer, especially at New Jersey's Montclair Art Museum, where she saw a coffee accident similar to Miriam's. "In the highly strung world of society volunteering, such an incident brands its victim," Frank says. "You become the one who blew the invitations. That kind of thing just follows you around until you're dead."
But it would be a mistake to see Miriam as a thinly veiled version of her author. The similarities are there, but Frank describes Miriam as a citizen of her own planet, both self-absorbed and mired in outdated traditions. "She is the last vestige of small-town America when women were expected to be very prim," Frank says, adding, "She hangs on to it a little too long.
It's fine to practice the good, old-fashioned Southern virtues that define a lady," Frank says, "but what happens when the world of the Southern belle falls to pieces?"
She's seen it happen to people she knows. "They're so stunned. What they were told to do by their parents didn't work because the world changed when no one was looking," she says.
For her extremely realistic portrait of Miriam as a desperate, lonely and defeated divorcee, Frank drew mostly on the experiences of people she knows who have had to live through similar events. Frank's own first marriage was so short, she describes it as a drive-through or maybe a drive-by.
There's no question that Frank's books have struck a chord with a lot of readers. She thinks it's because she writes about things that are on her mind as she deals with the death of loved ones, raising teenagers and growing old. "I'm talking to people my age about things I'm thinking about," she says.
Her audience is "a lot of very old ladies, bless them every one, and [baby] boomers." But sometimes a teenager will turn up in her fan club. It might be because the girl's mother gave her one of Frank's books, hoping it would help the reader understand her mom.
Frank's avid readers can count on seeing the South Carolina coast form the backdrop of books to come. Frank's love affair with Sullivan's Island and the area around Charleston doesn't look like it's going anywhere. She finally bought that house on Sullivan's Island, though not the house she grew up in. At the end of the day, though, that's okay with Frank. The island draws her home, and she realizes now that her childhood home may be redolent of too much sadness.
"I grew up in a Southern gothic novel, by the way," she explains. But that's not the kind of thing Frank writes. Her own books are breezier, funnier and more optimistic than that. On her website, Frank describes her novels as "good beach reads for people who want something to think about while they're soaking up the sun: Yes, I write to entertain but I also write to understand this complicated world and want to take you with me on the journey."
Lynn Hamilton is editor of the Tybee News in the coastal community of Tybee Island, Georgia.