Finding a Home After Heartbreak in The Beach Trees

BlogHer Review
For a lifelong West Coaster, I’m pretty obsessed with the South and New Orleans. I am drawn to the magic and romance of it, and I jumped at the chance to read a book that takes on the Gulf Coast. I imagined that reading The Beach Trees by Karen White would be the book version of eating beingets and listening to The Princess and The Frog soundtrack. But instead, The Beach Trees turned out to be more complex and thoughtful than a simple romp through New Orleans (a post-Katrina, mid-oil spill New Orleans, no less), much like the characters themselves.

White’s book tells the story of two families brought together by the unexpected death of Monica Guidry. Monica has bequeathed her family beach house and given guardianship of her son to a friend, Julie Holt. Julie and the boy travel from New York City to New Orleans on faith and a desire to understand Monica. Upon arrival Julie finds that the house was left in ruins by Hurricane Katrina, and sets about trying to connect the dots of Monica’s past and with her present.

Julie quickly finds that nothing is as it appears on the surface, and that in New Orleans, everyone has a backstory. The plot points around Julie’s past and the Giudry family mysteries at times intrigued me and at times left me unsatisfied. I wanted more shock, scandal, resolution from the characters, and found the pace to be a little off. However, I really feel in love with The Beach Trees when it explored themes of recovery and moving forward.

Julie’s guilt over the disappearance of her younger sister is practically a third main character. There is a palpable weight to Julie that made me want to give her a hug and a cup of coffee. The grief has overtaken her personality, her life choices, and has begun to erode her very essence. I cheered for her that she gets taken in by Monica’s grandmother Aimee -- a thoroughly Southern lady with depth, soul, and spunk.

In contrast to Julie’s lonely burden, the author paints a beautiful picture of the Gulf community which adopts her. In Biloxi, where she settles for a time, people are rebuilding. They are remembering the mighty losses of Katrina, but those losses give them the strength to move forward. As they often repeat, “You ain’t dead yet, so you ain’t done.”

Over the last six years, we have watched the Gulf Coast become ravaged by one disaster after another. It was incredibly refreshing to read the story of a community that had gone through a tragedy, and was picking up and rebuilding. I was inspired by the spirit of those around Julie -- they were pulling together to rebuild their sense of home. While Julie had spent her life struggling with her tragedy alone, White paints a beautiful picture of what can happen when we grieve and heal as a community.

So, book-lovers. Pour yourself an iced tea, grab a beignet (or a donut -- we don’t all have easy beignets access, sadly), and let yourself get swept away by The Beach Trees.

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