Living on the edge of Florida


In many ways, Laura Lee Smith’s Florida-set debut novel is about loving things to death.

It’s set in Utina, a bitty town on the Intracoastal between St. Augustine and Jacksonville, the sort of sleepy place you might find if you get off the interstate. Natives and long-timers would call it “Old Florida.” The fictional Utina, Smith writes, “inauspiciously named for the chief of a tribe of doomed Timucuan Indians, had been known historically for two things: palms and booze.” The markets for Palm Sunday fronds and moonshine vanished decades ago, but now, in the 21st century, Utina is poised for transformation: Real estate developers from as far away as Atlanta are sniffing around its waterfront properties, and the town’s first Publix is going up.

Whether to sell is just one of the problems confronting the Bravo family, whose story is the bruised, brave heart of Smith’s book. There’s matriarch Arla Bravo, still a statuesque, red-haired beauty at 60, who lost half her left foot on her honeymoon but rules her household with an iron hand.

Situated on the Intracoastal in a crumbling three-story Queen Anne mansion called Aberdeen, that household consists of Arla, her handsome but half-crazy daughter, Sofia, and one Biaggio Dunkirk, “one of those West Virginia corn-fed badasses who’d seen the inside of a jail cell more than the high school cafeteria” but “has settled down to a quiet life of peace and the systematic avoidance of extradition” in a trailer in the side yard of Aberdeen.

One of Arla’s three sons, Frank, hasn’t gotten much farther from his childhood home. He lives a few blocks away but works every day as bartender-cook-manager at Uncle Henry’s, a fish restaurant perched on the Intracoastal just a 15-minute walk through the woods from Aberdeen, and owned by Arla.

Frank dreamed of college, of living in the North Carolina mountains, of marrying a straight-talking girl named Elizabeth, but at 40 he’s still frying fish, pulling drafts and refereeing the fights between Arla and Sofia, the latest of which has left an upright Steinway piano blocking the main hall of their house.

As for Elizabeth, she is now married to Frank’s older brother, Carson Bravo, who has gotten as far away as St. Augustine. An investment manager with a nice house and cars, a pretty wife and adorable daughter, he seems like the Bravo success story.

Only two Bravos have escaped Utina. Arla’s youngest and favorite son, Will, was his brothers’ partner in crime when they were teenagers. Their pranks were usually harmless and unpunished, because “it’s hard to dust an alligator for fingerprints.” But one night a prank went wrong and Will died, a death that punched a vast hole through the middle of the family that hasn’t healed more than 20 years later.

The other escapee is Arla’s husband, Dean, who walked out after Will’s death and hasn’t been heard from since.

Heart of Palm is Smith’s first novel, and it’s a knockout. With its knowing but sweet-natured humor, its flawed and believable characters, its convincing depiction of small-town life, its delicious little plot twists and its insight about the human heart, it reminded me of the novels of Richard Russo, especially Nobody’s Fool and Empire Falls.

Smith, who lives in St. Augustine, creates a vivid sense of place, viewing Florida with a loving but unsentimental eye. Happily, she captures the Southern rhythms of her characters’ speech without having to resort to outlandish dialect writing, and she deftly peels back the layers of family relationships. She’s a welcome addition to the ranks of Florida writers, and Heart of Palm is a fine, bittersweet taste of the Sunshine State.

Colette Bancroft reviewed this book for The Tampa Bay Times.

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