Why I Kept Karen White's The Beach Trees at an Emotional Arm's Length
Almost from the first page, I knew I was going to have problems with Karen White's The Beach Trees, although I couldn't put my finger on why. Maybe the heavy subject matter -- woman with severe emotional baggage loses friend, inherits child in post-Katrina New Orleans -- put me on edge. Since becoming a mom, anything with a kid and a terrible event basically destroys me. Weirdly, I discovered, I actually really enjoyed the story as it unfolded.
I did keep my distance, subconsciously, and I know this now because of how I approached reading this book. Instead of fully submerging myself in the novel, I kept my editor's hat on. I read it much more critically than I normally read books for pleasure, and by doing so I think I saved myself from some of the heavier emotional themes.
One stylistic choice I was conscious of throughout was the first-person narration. Julie Holt, one of two narrators, is certainly a likable character (which is essential in first-person narration -- why would you read a story told by someone who gets on your nerves?), but I felt a certain lack of depth in her character. An event in Julie's past that could make her very compelling as a narrator was never deeply explored, and we only learned about it through a couple of dream sequences. Then again, some people just don't like to emotionally puke on the page, so Julie's restraint could certainly be seen as a defense mechanism. I noticed, though, that she did a lot of "wondering." She found herself "wondering" at the end of many chapters, and that device -- making her explicitly wonder things so that we the readers would wonder the same things -- was slightly distracting. That's nit-picky, I know, but because I enjoyed the story so much and because most of the writing was beautifully done, little things like that stood out for me.
The other narrator, Aimee Guidry, relayed a story from pre-Camille New Orleans that I found incredibly engaging. Had a very Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil feel to it. Aimee, being much older than Julie, intertwined her history with Julie's through flashback, storytelling scenes that worked quite well. There were a couple of snafus, though, in how Aimee's story unfolded, which should have been caught by an editor. One in particular regarding the Guidry family tree (which I won't specify, in case any other readers don't happen to notice) that gave away one of the book's key suspense points.
Karen White's descriptions of place were lovely, and the setting (a key component in both Julie and Aimee's stories) was beautifully rendered.
All in all, The Beach Trees goes above and beyond a typical summer read to explore some pretty deep emotional realities. For everyone who wants a book to entertain, there's plenty of suspense supported by a great story to keep things moving along quickly.