Saturday, April 2, 2011

On Folly Beach by Karen White

Title: On Folly Beach
Author: Karen White

ISBN: 978-0451229212

Pages: 390

Release Date: May 2010

Publisher: New American Library

Genre: Contemporary Fiction; Historical Fiction

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Publisher: To most people, Folly Beach is simply the last barrier island before reaching the great Atlantic. To some, it's a sanctuary for lost souls, which is why Emmy Hamilton's mother encourages her to buy the local book store, Folly's Finds, hoping it will distract Emmy from the loss of her husband.

Emmy is at first resistant. So much has already changed. But after finding love letters and an image of a beautiful bottle tree in a box of used books from Folly's Finds, she decides to take the plunge. But the seller insists on one condition: Emmy must allow Lulu, the late owner's difficult sister, to continue selling her bottle trees from its back yard.

For the most part Emmy ignores Lulu as she sifts through the love letters, wanting to learn more. But the more she discovers about the letters, the more she understands Lulu. As details of a possible murder and a mysterious disappearance during WWII are revealed, the two women discover that circumstances beyond their control, sixty years apart, have brought them together, here on Folly Beach. And it is here that their war-ravaged hearts can find hope for a second chance...

My Thoughts: Two stories are told side by side in Karen White's beautifully written novel, On Folly Beach. One story is set in 2009, the other during the era of WWII in the early 1940s. The two stories eventually intertwine through the lives of the flawed and very real characters of Lulu and Emmy. This was my first experience reading Karen White's fiction and it was an absorbing and delightful treat. It's no surprise that On Folly Beach is a finalist in the Romance Writer's of America RITA Awards. I hope and expect it will be announced the winner at the ceremony in NYC on July 1st.

When we first meet Emmy she is grieving the death of her husband, Ben, a soldier who died fighting the war in Afghanistan. Emmy is mired in sadness, unable to focus on anything, living interminable, shapeless days in Indiana. Emmy, stubborn and unwilling to let go of her depression, fears if she does she'll also lose her memories of Ben. That is until Emmy becomes distracted while sorting through a box of old books. She discovers in the pages of some of literatures most loved classics messages scrawled in the margins. They appear to be communications between two people. Emmy loves exploring and solving mysteries presented by old maps, documents and books. Once the hidden messages take hold of her, she can think of little else.

Emmy's desire to solve the mystery of the messages takes her to Folly Beach, where her mother Paige grew up. She is a secondary but wonderfully three-dimensional character who encourages Emmy to purchase Folly's Finds, an old bookstore in Folly Beach. Here Emmy will discover further clues to help her unravel the mystery of the scrawled messages. She'll also meet Abigail, the prior owner of the bookstore, whose family has lived in Folly Beach for many years, her son Heathcliff and Lulu. They will all help Emmy figure out who was writing the messages and why. Emmy comes to realize that some secrets might be better left alone and there are some things more important than figuring out old truths. Emmy learns what it means to have friends, care about other people and to respect how they feel.

The story of Folly Beach, South Carolina in the early 1940s is told side-by-side with Emmy's story. It's the beginnings of the mystery Emmy's looking into and suffice to say a little more interesting and exciting than Emmy's story! I don't want to give much of it away but I will tell you that Lulu was a young girl living in Folly Beach in the 1940s with her sister, Maggie, who owned the island's bookstore. Karen White slips seamlessly and easily between the two eras, making it easy for us to read the stories of past and present and understand the impact of the one on the other when the stories finally overlap.

Love and loss and lure of the past are major themes in On Folly Beach. Karen White uses imagery of the sea and swamp, wind, fog and old maps and documents to explore these themes in the characters' lives. There are also numerous references to classic literature throughout for book lovers. War, the fear it causes and the damage that may result from war is an unbroken thread that courses through both worlds inexorably linking times and people. Emmy learns what Lulu, her sister Maggie and others already know: that life goes on and to celebrate it.

My favorite character is Lulu. She's a child living in Folly Beach in the early 1940s (with her older sister, Maggie) and is the only character still there in 1990, still connected to the bookstore. A sweet, smart, funny child, she's grown into a curmudgeonly old lady with a strong distrust of outsiders. She's the most developed of the characters and connects everything. She's loyal, creative and her hardened veneer provides some comic relief.

It's hard to say more without giving anything away. It's enough here to say that if you enjoy great story telling, written well and believable, interesting and varied character with a real payoff at the end, not some vague disappointing anticlimax, you'll love On Folly Beach. The lessons are there if you want to take something more away with you when you've put the book down, too. What more could you want out of a book?

Karen White has written a beautiful story that shows us how the past and the present are forever linked. Her story-telling is concise and tight but nothing lacks in either story about Folly Beach and its residents in the 1940s or today. In fact, both stories contain wonderfully realistic characters, strong plots and terrific imagery so when the stories unite with an unexpected twist or two we are completely and ultimately satisfied. I highly recommend On Folly Beach.

I was fortunate to win a copy of On Folly Beach from Katrina, at her blog, Stone Soup and her website


  1. This one is on my stack of books to possibly take to Florida with me next week. Great review.

  2. I enjoy books that have dual settings like this one, and the fact that there is a twist at the end makes it even more interesting to me. Great review Amy :)

    I see that you are reading Mr. Chartwell; I enjoyed it, hope you are too.

  3. I thought this book was great too! I really wanted to visit the bookstore after I read it.

  4. This is one that I added to my TBR list a while ago. So happy to see that you enjoyed it. It does seem to have all of the elements that I like in a book.

  5. Oh Yay! This has been on TBR list forever. But I have been hesitant to buy it. I am so glad to see you give it such a good rating! Thanks for the review.

  6. I loved this book as well, and think you did a beautiful job on this review of it. I actually liked Lulu, because she was just such a curmudgeon, and when her story was finally revealed to the full extent, I was just blown away. Great book. I am glad to hear you enjoyed it so much!

  7. I'm so glad you liked this one Amy. I loved it!

  8. Isn't Karen White awesome?! I loved this one and her others -- especially The House On Tradd Street. She's such an atmospheric writer, and I really felt like I was walking on Folly Beach with her characters. Great review!

  9. NISE: I hope you do. I think you'll love it. And it's perfect for the beach since it's mainly set on the water!

    THEBOOKGIRL: I think you would really enjoy On Folly Beach, it's beautifully written.
    I'm going to stop by soon to check out your thoughts on Mr. Chartwell!

  10. BERMUDAONION: I wanted to visit Folly Beach & the bookstore. Wouldn't it be fun to be able to do that?!

    DIANE: I hope you have the chance to read this book soon. I think you'll enjoy it quite a bit, esp. the historical part of the story.

  11. WALL-to-WALL: On Folly Beach is definitely worth taking the time to read. I hope you like it! btw, I live your comment phot, that cat is beautiful!

    ZIBILEE: Lulu is a wonderful character! I loved that we were treated to the full spectrum of her personality. When I strted reading On Folly Beach I didn't expect the story to be so rich and powerful. What a nice surprise that ws! I'm so glad you enjoyed it too!

  12. DARLENE: Your review is one of the ones that encouraged my reading of On Folly Beach! Thank you!

    MEG: I haven't read 'The House on Tradd Street" yet but will...soon I hope. You're absolutely right, Karen White is great at making you feel as if you can see and feel the places she writes about, as if the story is unfolding in front of you! Thank you for visiting my blog!

  13. I really liked the story from the past. White did a lovely job of tying the two together.

  14. I really enjoyed this book, too, especially the WWII aspect. I will link to your review on War Through the Generations.