Did you ever get the feeling that you should have enjoyed a book more than you did? Sullivan's Island had all of the necessary ingredients for a satisfying read -- strong writing, interesting setting, coming-of-age plot, even a namesake heroine -- but they didn't gel for me.
Susan Hayes has to start a new life when she comes home unexpectedly from work one day and finds her husband Tom in bed with a much younger woman. The forty-something library fund-raiser takes refuge from this humiliation at her childhood home in nearby Sullivan's Island, South Carolina. There she seeks solace from her older sister Maggie and reminisces about the events of 1963, a pivotal year that forever changed her family and left the teenaged Susan headed in a new, unexpected direction.
That fateful year, Susan's father was both hero and villain. To the Black population of South Carolina, his insistence on building a new school that had the same amenities as one for white children -- despite the protests of the Board of Education -- makes him a champion. But only Susan and her family know that this same man is also physically abusive to his children and unfaithful to his depressed, alcoholic wife. The love that Susan's parents can't offer is provided by Livvie, the family's Black housekeeper. But even Livvie can't protect Susan from impending dissention, financial crisis and even unexpected death.
Remembering Livvie's words of wisdom helps the adult Susan make major changes in her life to recover from Tom's betrayal and cope with her teenaged daughter's rebellious and moody behavior. By New Year's Eve 1999, Susan has learned to love with all of her heart instead of holding back, and her reward may be the peace and happiness she has searched for.
With endorsements from fellow Southern authors Anne Rivers Siddons and Pat Conroy, Sullivan's Island looked promising. Even now I can't fully pinpoint why it took me two weeks to read, a sure sign that I'm not engaged. Part of the problem may lie in Susan herself. She is wise-cracking in a way that is too glib. I never felt the heartache she expressed over her traumatic childhood and her husband's infidelity. And once she tries to put her life back in order, she's so successful that I was more envious than sympathetic. She visits a new beauty salon -- and emerges with a fabulous new cut, plus she's made friends with the stylist as well. She decides she wants to be a journalist, submits a human interest column about growing up on Sullivan's Island to one newspaper -- and she gets a job. It's just too easy!
The clichéd characters bothered me as well. Starting with the wise, happy Black housekeeper and moving on to the depressed, self-absorbed mother and even the gay hairdresser, they display little originality. One notable exception is Roger, Susan's first post-separation date, who turns out to have an interesting sexual preference that keeps her on her toes.
The resemblance to other growing-up-Southern novels I've read wouldn't have bothered me if Sullivan's Island had possessed that little something extra -- that magical touch that makes the whole more than the sum of its parts. Without that spark, my slow journey through the novel made its flaws glaringly apparent.
Sullivan's Island is not at all a terrible read, just not an exceptional one. Women's fiction readers could do a lot worse. But given my lukewarm reaction, I recommend it only with reservations.