Skeletons and Self-discovery in The Beach Trees
Who doesn’t love a good “skeleton in the family closet” story, right? All families have them. The Guidry family of New Orleans is no different as Julie Holt, the main character in Karen White's The Beach Trees, discovers.
Upon the death of her friend Monica, Julie is given River Song, a beach house that was torn apart by Hurricane Katrina, and custody of Monica’s son, Beau. Julie, whose life lacks direction, heads away from her life in New York toward Monica’s once-beloved beach home in Biloxi, MS.
Because River Song is less than even a shell of its former glory, Julie travels to New Orleans to find Monica’s family. She hopes to introduce Beau to his family, but more importantly she hopes to unravel the mystery surrounding why Monica left New Orleans -- what skeleton scared her away from her family and home?
It is through Aimee, Monica’s grandmother, that the real story is told. White uses Aimee and Julie as dual narrators for the story, periodically switching between past and present, but Aimee’s story is THE story set against the backdrop of Julie’s search for the missing parts of herself. Together they reconstruct their somewhat shared history while Julie helps rebuild River Song, a metaphor for rebuilding -- or beginning to build -- her life.
Once White introduced Aimee and her story began, I found myself somewhat disinterested in most of the present-day events of the novel. Julie seemed to lack substance and direction. I couldn’t picture her in my mind. She was missing a voice.
But not Aimee.
Aimee I could see. I could hear. When reading Aimee’s story about spending her childhood summers in New Orleans, I connected with her. Aimee’s telling of her version of the Guidry family story was as much about her own discovery of the family secrets as it was about the reader’s discovery of those same secrets. I found myself longing for Aimee’s narrative despite the fact that this was supposed to be Julie’s story. I had questions and I needed Aimee to answer them.
Now that I’ve had a couple of weeks to back away from the novel, Julie’s hollow character seems fitting. She is hollow before she meets the Guidry family. She hasn’t yet found the voice she seemed to be missing as I read. While I found myself drawn to Aimee’s story in the reading, it’s Julie’s story I want more of now.
I’ve wavered on whether or not I liked this story, what parts I loved and what I could do without, but I haven’t stopped asking questions. Ultimately, I’ve decided that it’s this desire to know more after I’ve finished the novel that makes The Beach Trees a worthy read.