It’s a Family Affair: Dorothea Benton Frank’s The Hurricane Sisters

The Hurricane Sisters

Whether you read it on the beach, in a crowded subway car, or at a chilly coffee shop, Dorothea Benton Frank’s The Hurricane Sisters will transport you instantly to South Carolina’s stunning, leisurely Lowcountry, where you can almost smell the brisk salt air, taste the sweet tea, and feel the sand sticking to your legs.

Here on beautiful Sullivan’s Island we meet dreamy twentysomething artist Ashley Anne Waters, who’s barely making ends meet as a gallery assistant while living in her family’s dilapidated beach cottage for free with her best friend, aspiring teacher and current caterer’s assistant Mary Beth.

Ashley’s artistic aspirations are frowned upon by her father, successful investment banker Clayton, and her mother, Liz, a passionate fundraiser for a domestic violence shelter. Liz and Clayton likewise disapprove of the lifestyle of their stylish gay son, Clayton IV (who, thanks to the Roman Numerals in his name, goes by the nickname “Ivy”), who lives in San Francisco with his tech-geek business (and life) partner, James.

Liz suspects the remote, absentee Clayton of having an affair, but despite this hardship still comes across as rather unsympathetic, at least initially. She is a harsh judge of her children and the paths they have chosen, acts defensively toward her 80-year-old mother, Maisie, and is generally prickly with the ones she loves.

However, one of the most satisfying aspects of Frank’s absorbing, highly readable, and beautifully layered novel is the fact that each chapter is narrated by a different member of the very diverse (and complicated) Waters family. As we share the perspective of each character, slowly their ties to one another, as well as the deep-seated origins of their many feuds, hostilities, and disagreements, become increasingly clearer. The more we learn about Liz, the more likeable she becomes, and the more we sympathize with the choices she has made. Her life has not been an easy one, and she holds herself to an impossibly high standard as both a wife and a mother. Liz carries the burden of a beautiful, perfect older sister, Juliet, who died tragically at an early age, and of a mother who unceasingly compares her to Juliet and finds her lacking.

As Liz steels herself to confront Clayton over their disintegrating marriage, and Maisie faces a crisis when her much younger partner has a stroke, Ashley endures her own relationship challenges.  She’s begun dating a handsome, polished politician named Porter, who has begun to act less than gentlemanly towards her. Despite the fact that her mother is a passionate advocate for victims of domestic violence (and Frank makes a point of mentioning that South Carolina has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the country), both Ashley and her mother refuse to see Porter for the man he really is.

In the immortal words of Tolstoy, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The Waters family is certainly unhappy in a unique way; the hopes, fears, and expectations that these three generations of women have for each other are all tangled together, and even those with the best intentions often end up being unintentionally hurtful. In this way, Frank manages to capture in almost excruciating detail the ways in which family members who love each other dearly are still able to misunderstand and alienate each other. But the enduring love and compassion that they also have for each other, above it all, is that much more inspiring and truthful.

If you’re looking for a heartwarming read with cleverly drawn characters and a plot that draws you in and won’t let go, The Hurricane Sisters is the perfect summer beach book.

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