The Beach Trees: A Bittersweet Love Song to the Gulf Coast
By lauriewrites on July 27, 2011
Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?
Even if you've never been there, Karen White's The Beach Trees may make you feel like you do. This bittersweet love song to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Louisiana paints the region as an essential backdrop to any story that takes place within its borders, even this tale of multi-generational family love, intrigue, and death.
White draws us into the world of the Mercier and Guidry families, longtime neighbors in the upscale Garden District of New Orleans from the 1950s to the present day. When Julie Holt, guardian to the Guidry's ill-fated granddaughter Monica's son, Beau, shows up from New York with a family portrait, a five-year-old grandson, and a lot of questions, it sets off a string of revelations for all concerned.
Julie and Miss Aimee, Guidry family matriarch, tell the story, time shifting from the '50s to the present day, as Aimee tries to bring Julie up to speed with Guidry family stories that have seemingly nothing to do with her (except maybe they do.) Julie likewise shares her own experience of losing her sister, missing since adolescence, and her desire to fulfill her best friend Monica's wishes of rebuilding a childhood home destroyed in Hurricane Katrina so that Beau can experience it. Throw in Aimee's grandson (and Monica's brother) Trey, Xavier (the gardener with a tragic backstory) and Ray Von, a retired family maid in Biloxi, and there is plenty to keep the reader busy with knitting together a story that seems to grow more complicated with each turning page.
White's power is in lyrical storytelling interwoven with a reverent, yet quite realistic, sense of place. She has a lovely way with words, and her descriptions of New Orleans neighborhoods and the streets and shores of Biloxi take the reader as closely as they can get to there without a map, without being heavy-handed. If you've been to the intersection of St. Charles Avenue and Washington Street in New Orleans, for instance, I think you'll find that her words ring true.
Her fine hand with detail and language lends itself to fine character development as well, with a few exceptions (Mr. Guidry? No clue what was going on with that guy. Aimee Guidry's Grandmother Mercier? Eh. Even Monica is a bit of a mystery.) It's quite possible to get caught up in the page-by-page descriptions of the action and interactions between characters without caring much where the story is going.
But therein lies the problem. All of the myriad ends of this complicated story have to go somewhere, and where they go is to a dizzying head at the very end. So much happens in the final few chapters of the book -- violent storms, decades-old revelations of tragedies and crimes -- the reader's head is liable to spin. Look a little deeper at the book, and there is much to wish for, unfortunately. While it's not boring in the slightest, the ending is a bit jarring after chapter after chapter of exposition and relatively mild activity.
Some increased action in the middle would have helped. The simmering animosity between Trey and Julie never really moves forward, but just hangs around, making the resolution not as satisfying as it could be. Julie's xenophobic perceptions of the people of the region are troubling and strangely entrenched throughout. While her process of understanding is obvious and mildly interesting, one wonders what would have happened if White had had her go out with Trey to rebuild houses in less affluent neighborhoods, instead of manufacturing another minor spat that caused her to stay home.
All things considered, I enjoyed this book to the point that how much I liked it surprised me, and I'd recommend it to others. The story is absorbing and well-told. It's a perfect book for the beach or kicking back at home. And if the pace and intricacy of the events at the end is not entirely consistent with those at the beginning, I suppose sometimes you have to stick around for the pay-off.
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