Reviewed by Sara Hodon
The Beach Trees
by Karen White
Paperback: 432 pages, May 3, 2011, ISBN-13: 978-0451233073
A young woman starting over after a series of unexpected events alters her original life path. A family forced to come to terms with a devastating loss. How fitting that the setting for Karen White’s latest, The Beach Trees, is the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast—a part of the world where rebuilding and starting over is simply part of life.
The Beach Trees focuses on Julie Holt, a young woman struggling with the loss of her close friend Monica Guidry, an artist with a mysterious past whose chronic heart condition unexpectedly claims her life. Julie has been named guardian of Monica’s 5-year-old son, Beau, and in a goodwill gesture, Julie takes the little boy out of New York and ventures to the Gulf Coast in the hopes of meeting Monica’s family. Monica has told Julie very little about her past or what brought her to New York, making the trip all the more stressful for Julie, who feels a bit like she’s chasing a ghost.
But Monica’s not the only one with troubling family secrets. Julie is still reeling from her younger sister Chelsea’s disappearance nearly seventeen years ago. Julie has been searching for the girl ever since, with no success, and to her it seems as if part of her life will forever be on hold until her sister is found.
Although Julie is the central character, Monica is the focal point of the entire story. Her presence and influence is felt throughout the entire story, even though she never appears. What readers learn about Monica we learn through other characters’ commentary and recollections. White goes to great lengths to share the painful details of the Guidry family’s secret (which ties into why Monica essentially ran away from home to live in New York, cutting off contact with her family), yet gives very little information on the present-day. She includes blink-and-you’ll-miss-them answers to questions as the book progresses—among them, why Julie lost her job, how she and Monica met and became friends, and details about Beau’s father. The subplot—Julie’s search for her missing sister—seems loosely tied in to the main storyline, but I felt that unraveling the twisted strands of the Guidrys’ family life was far more interesting. It seemed as though White added the element of the missing sister to the plot to give Julie some added depth, and to show that she is battling her own family secrets rather than being caught up in the Guidrys’ painful past.
White is purposeful in her choice of setting. While Julie and the Guidrys rebuild their lives—both together and separately—they come together to physically rebuild the Guidrys’ beach house, River Song. The house will come to represent a new beginning for everyone, although as Monica’s grandmother Aimee explains, rebuilding and starting over is nothing new for the Gulf Coast residents—it’s simply a part of life. These are lessons Julie learns for herself over the course of the book. She must come to terms with the fact that she may never know what happened to her sister, but she must make peace with it if she is to move on. White doesn’t give the reader a neat and tidy ending. Rather, she leaves some questions unanswered, forcing the characters and the reader to accept that, in fact, some things in life are simply meant to remain a mystery.
About the reviewer: Sara Hodon’s work has appeared in History, Young Money, WritersWeekly.com, and The Valley: Lebanon Valley College’s Magazine, among others. She is also the “Date and Relate” columnist for Online Dating Magazine (www.onlinedatingmagazine.com). Read more about her trials and triumphs in the writing life on her blog, http://adventuresinthewritinglife.blogspot.com