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Review of Stiltsville

September 10, 2011

Stiltsville Can a story with little in the way of high drama, crime, or vampires be a compelling page-turner?  Absolutely, if it’s Stiltsville, the debut novel by Susanna Daniel. The story is of Frances Ellerby, a woman who lives her life the best way she can, making hard choices, and some mistakes, while experiencing the joys, pleasures, and sorrows of an average life.  She is not an extraordinary heroine who the reader might idolize or wish to be. The fascination lies in the fact that she is an average woman; she is every woman, and she is simply living her life while we watch.

 

Stiltsville PicStiltsville opens in 1969 when 26-year-old Frances attends a wedding in Miami.  She meets a man, Dennis, whom she later marries.  She also makes friends with a few women, Marse and Bette.  Dennis and Frances have a daughter and make a home together.  They work and they play.  One of the places they like to hang out is Stiltsville, a collection of houses on pilings in the water off the coast of Miami that has been the family’s refuge for years.  It becomes a metaphor of the tropical paradise that is their life.

Some thirty years come and go.  As is always the case with life eventually there is sorrow.  The tropical paradise becomes stifling and claustrophobic.  The winds pick up and throw stuff around and then it is quiet again.

Daniel does an incredible job painting Miami into the background of this story.  Detail is what she does best; you feel the heat, smell the orange groves and experience the hurricanes.  Her prose transports you to a time and place that feels familiar and exotic at the same time.  Also, she is adept at capturing the little thoughts that pass through one’s mind that give life meaning and weight.

“Instead of dividing, the focus I’d previously reserved for Dennis multiplied; in the early months of Margo’s life I found myself stunned at my luck.  I’d found a person to love, and together we’d made another person to love.  It was simultaneously exactly what I’d wanted and more than I could have asked for myself.”

I’m fascinated by how average women like myself get on with the rituals that make up our routine day in and day out until it’s over.  Daniel gave me a glimpse of my life from the outside looking in.  This is a beautiful study of the magic in everyday life written in elegant prose.  I couldn’t put Stiltsville down until I finished it.

Susanna DanielDaniel won the 2011 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Award for Stiltsville.

Harper Perennial, 2010

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