REVIEW: Beach bag books: Mary Alice Monroe’s summer sisters series

Jun. 30, 2014 @ 09:02 AM

SUMMER READING: The staff of The Herald-Sun Books section is sharing our recommendations for great summer reading all summer long.

“The Summer Girls” (Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster, trade paperback, $7.99)
and “The Summer Wind” (Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster, softcover $16)
are books one and two in Mary Alice Monroe’s Lowcountry Summer Trilogy.

It’s beach read season, and Mary Alice Monroe of South Carolina’s Lowcountry is back this summer with the second in a trilogy of novels about three sisters spending the summer at their grandmother’s home on Sullivan’s Island. Just published, “The Summer Wind” follows last summer’s “The Summer Girls.”
The story begins when the grandmother, Mamaw, gathers the girls together at her home, called Sea Breeze. Her late, alcoholic son was father to all three, who each have very different mothers and very different lives. Mamaw lived in wealthy Charleston, South Carolina, but has since retired to her summer house year-round, a home that each sister has spent time in, though not for several years. She invites them for her 80th birthday and gets them to stay all summer.
In “The Summer Girls,” the focus is on Carson, who may have inherited her father’s alcoholism and who is fighting the urge to run away from life’s stressors. Also a surfer, she encounters a dolphin she names Delphine, and Delphine becomes a character throughout the books, called “The Lowcountry Summer Trilogy.”
The books are good to take to a beach house with you as you relax, or read while sitting on the beach in a chair on the sand. The real beach setting makes the books all the more enjoyable. Monroe’s vivid imagery of the Lowcountry’s smells, tastes and sights brings you up to the door of the Sea Breeze so even if you’re at home far from the ocean, you can imagine yourself there.
Monroe’s novels always include an environmental lesson, and the focus in this series is dolphins. Readers will get the message not to feed dolphins or get close to them because as cool as they are, they are wild animals and should be left alone. In “The Summer Girls,” Delphine is injured because of sister Carson’s desire to be close even though she knew better. Monroe also lets readers into the world of parenting a child on the autism spectrum, something that is more prevalent today so is especially helpful to readers who don’t have firsthand experience. Monroe is adept at writing scenes that raise emotions to the surface. In “The Summer Wind,” sister Dora’s son is helped with therapy that includes dolphins.
Dora isn’t very likable in “The Summer Girls,” something she likely sees herself in the beginning of the summer as she is on the brink of divorce and unsure of herself. But in “The Summer Wind,” we see more of Dora the individual, not just the sister judging her siblings or the wife whose professional ambitions were simply marriage. Everyone is off work for the summer, sister Harper finally breaking free from her own controlling mother, and Carson away from Los Angeles while fighting her way to sobriety.
The woman on the cover of “The Summer Wind” is likely Carson, as she is in shape and has long dark hair. Dora is an overweight blonde. Or maybe the woman is the reader, whose own red and white striped towel is blowing in the summer wind. There’s a point the book when a character refers to a storm as just the summer wind, and it’s an appropriate title for this story. Each of the women is going through her own storm of sorts, sometimes with gale force drama and sometimes with just a curtain-ruffling breeze.
There’s food in “The Summer Wind” and “The Summer Girls,” not in a way of a theme or recipes in the back, but as social gathering. Monroe actually gives readers some good ideas for what to have for dinner, especially if eating on the coast. If the title of “The Summer Wind” has you singing Frank Sinatra, yes, there’s a scene with the song.
The third book, due next summer, will focus on Harper as she uses the summer spent with her sisters and grandmother as a way to find her own place in the world. Once you get to know the sisters and Mamaw, you’ll want to follow their lives beyond the summer, and the beach.
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