From the next “major voice in Southern fiction” (New York Times bestselling author Elin Hilderbrand) comes the first in an all-new series chronicling the journeys of three sisters and their mother—and a secret from their past that has the potential to tear them apart and reshape their very definition of what it means to be a family.
Caroline Murphy swore she’d never set foot back in the small Southern town of Peachtree Bluff; she was a New York girl born and bred and the worst day of her life was when, in the wake of her father’s death, her mother selfishly forced her to move—during her senior year of high school, no less—back to that hick-infested rat trap where she'd spent her childhood summers. But now that her marriage to a New York high society heir has fallen apart in a very public, very embarrassing fashion, a pregnant Caroline decides to escape the gossipmongers with her nine-year-old daughter and head home to her mother, Ansley.
Ansley has always put her three daughters first, especially when she found out that her late husband, despite what he had always promised, left her with next to nothing. Now the proud owner of a charming waterfront design business and finally standing on her own two feet, Ansley welcomes Caroline and her brood back with open arms. But when her second daughter Sloane, whose military husband is overseas, and youngest daughter and successful actress Emerson join the fray, Ansley begins to feel like the piece of herself she had finally found might be slipping from her grasp. Even more discomfiting, when someone from her past reappears in Ansley's life, the secret she’s harbored from her daughters their entire lives might finally be forced into the open.
Exploring the powerful bonds between sisters and mothers and daughters, this engaging novel is filled with Southern charm, emotional drama, and plenty of heart.
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About the Author
Kristy Woodson Harvey is a born-and-bred North Carolina girl who loves all four seasons—especially fall in Chapel Hill, where she attended college, and summer in Beaufort, where she and her family spend every free moment. The author of Dear Carolina and Lies and Other Acts of Love, Kristy is also the founder of the popular interior design blog Design Chic.
Read an Excerpt
Slightly South of Simple
I love pretty much every quirky thing about my town. The weird people and the weirder traditions, the over-the-top celebrations and beautiful old homes. I love that I can feel like I am completely at the end of the earth but then, two bridges and twenty minutes later, enter an adjacent town large enough to have everything I need. I thrive on the quiet and privacy of the off-season but the summer vacationers who feel free to photograph my home and sometimes even peek in through my windows have never been my favorite thing.
And Caroline has never been my favorite child. I know that’s not nice to say, but it’s nicer than saying she’s my least favorite child, which is really the truth. I love her to pieces. I’d take a bullet for her. I’d sooner die than see something bad happen to her, and I would never, ever want to live without her. But she is . . . tricky.
So I guess that’s why I didn’t answer the first time she called. I was in Sloane Emerson, my interior design shop, which, yes, I did name after my other two, more favored children. It’s a bit of a family joke, actually. When we moved to Peachtree Bluff, Caroline kicking and screaming in her designer jeans the whole way, I acted casual about opening my store. I acted like it was something I was doing to take my mind off of my beloved husband dying, like it was something I was doing to assert myself. In actuality, I’d had to go back to work because, while we were told we would be receiving millions of dollars in life insurance, we hadn’t. I thought it would intensify the general panic and nightmares and PTSD around our new, very large, very potentially haunted home if my girls knew that.
So when I announced that I was getting back into decorating, my darling jewel of a daughter Caroline had said, “Oh, good. I hear the camper-trailer design business is really flourishing right now.”
And when I enthused that the business was going so well that I thought I would open a storefront, my sweet-tempered, well-adjusted child snapped, “If you name it Caroline’s, I will die.”
So I didn’t name it Caroline’s. I named it Sloane Emerson. It was the first thing I had done in quite some time that my eldest daughter thought was funny.
It was quiet around town that January morning, the tourists hiding wherever they had come from, not to return until April, despite it being my favorite time of year. Maybe it was the temperatures in the mid- to high sixties that made me love the winter so much. Maybe it was that only the locals remained. It was hard to tell.
I was pulling some Pine Cone Hill matelassé samples for two regular clients who needed to spruce up their yachts—in a town of three thousand people, boat owners had become my bread and butter—when the bell above the door rang.
Ah, yes. I would know that beard anywhere. Hippie Hal, reporting for duty.
“What’s up, Hal?”
“Oh, not much, Ansley. You know. The tide rolls in, the tide rolls out.”
“Sure does, Hal.”
This was a part of the morning. Whether it was forty degrees or 140, Hal wore rumpled jeans and a meticulously pressed white oxford. But depending on the heat, he’d layer a few of the shirts. It was his signature look. Hal, who had sold the three McDonald’s he owned in Tennessee and headed for the shore, lived in a small house two streets over that was always a subject of heated debate at town meetings. You see, Hal refurbished bicycles, saved them from the landfill, as he put it. So there were always a few on his front lawn to entice tourists ready to bike around town.
And the historical association, Mrs. McClasky in particular, had a fit about it. Every month.
But it took a lot to ruffle Hal, and until she came over in her crop pants and Keds and made him remove those bikes, they were staying put.
In the meantime, Hal made his morning rounds, said hello to all the shop owners, and rode one of those front-yard bikes back home. He had a big garage. Biggest in town, in fact. I asked him one time, “Hal, why don’t you put those bikes in the garage, and then we could quit having to talk about them every single town meeting?”
He got a far-off look in his eye and said, “That’s not a bad idea. But you see, here’s the problem. If I put those bikes in my garage, Mrs. McClasky wouldn’t have anything to do anymore. She’d have no purpose. Then she’d be miserable. And I feel like it’s my job to spread happiness wherever I go.” He grinned then.
That seemed about right to me.
I smiled at Hal, and he asked, “Want me to send Coffee Kyle down here?”
I nodded, samples in hand. “Sure, Hal. That would be great. I could use a little caffeine.” He turned to walk out, and I said, “Hey, Hal. Wait a minute.”
“What’s that? You need some produce? I can get Kimmy down here, too.”
“No. I don’t need any produce.” I held up two blue shades of matelassé. “Which one do you like better?”
He pointed to the lighter shade on the left. Hippie Hal might have worn a piece of rope as a belt, but the man had taste.
“Boyfriend Sky it is,” I said out loud, even though he had gone.
I looked down at the sample again, thinking of Caroline and how I needed to return her call. She would love this matelassé. Maybe I would send her one. Things were good between us now that she had forgiven me for stealing a whole half-year of city life from her, now that she had still married one of the most eligible bachelors in town and had Vivi and this new baby on the way and that big life she had always dreamed of.
I picked up the phone to dial her—my daughters found it hilarious that I still dialed their numbers as often as I searched for their contacts. As I did, I realized that, yet again, my finger joint was sort of sticking when I tried to bend it, like a door swollen from the rain. I had quit doing my Trigger Finger exercises for a couple of days and the annoying condition had come back with a vengeance. I sighed. Aging is not for the faint of heart. Before I could hit the green button, Kimmy walked in. Her hair got weirder and weirder. She had a severe spiky haircut that was half black, half blue. It looked like a Smurf gone Goth.
“Hal said you wanted Swiss chard?”
This was the only problem with Hal. He was really helpful, except that he had smoked away every brain cell he had long, long ago. Kimmy was the owner of a hydroponic farm, but you didn’t have to be part of the Drug Enforcement Administration to put together that vegetables weren’t the only thing she was growing hydroponically. Hence the friendship between Hal and her.
“That wasn’t me,” I said.
“Didn’t think so. You hate chard.”
I do. I thought of my youngest daughter, Emerson, and smiled. She was in LA pursuing her acting dream, like thousands and thousands of other talented, beautiful women and men. I was proud of her for following her heart, but it still bugged me that she hadn’t gone to college. What was she going to do when she got her first wrinkle and lost all job possibilities? She would land on her feet. Probably.
Emerson loved Swiss chard. She put it in the blender with a handful of grapes and half an orange and some ice and thought it was the most delicious thing ever. But that was LA for you.
“That’s OK.” I pulled a five-dollar bill out of my wallet. “Can you leave me something I do like to cook for dinner?”
I knew what she was going to say, and it annoyed me every day. Every single day. But she asked it anyway, like it was a fresh question. “You eating alone tonight, Ansley?”
I pretended I didn’t hear her and said, very loudly, “Coffee Kyle!”
Coffee Kyle was smoking hot. I was a fifty-something-year-old woman whose children would taunt her mercilessly if they heard her utter the phrase “smoking hot.” And it was inappropriate for me to think that way about a kid in his mid-twenties. But he was, and there was no way around that. He looked like one of those really versatile actors in the Hallmark movies Emerson had done. He was tall, dark, and handsome and could play the mechanic in one video, the lawyer in the next, and the serial killer in the third without skipping a beat.
“Well, hey there, Miss Ansley. I brought a skinny soy vanilla latte for you today.” He winked at me. “Although you don’t need the skinny.”
I laughed in spite of myself. He really was so cute. Something in his good nature reminded me of Sloane’s husband, Adam. I hadn’t seen it at first, but Adam was the perfect man for Sloane. She was kind and loving, my easiest child by far. It had hit her the hardest when her father died, made her afraid and, for a while, anxiety ridden. I worried that a man would overpower her, take advantage of her gentle nature. But Adam knew how to love her, how to make her feel safe and special. I always taught my girls that they didn’t need a man to save them. They needed to be able to save themselves. And Sloane could. But, confident in the knowledge that she could stand on her own two feet, I adored how Adam had positively swept her off of them.
“So what you got going on today, Miss Ansley?” Kyle asked as I handed him his money and he handed me my latte.
“Page and Stage has a new Southern writer coming in today. I thought I’d run down and pick up her book.” I hated TV. I thought it was the downfall of civilization. I didn’t have one. So I read. A lot. I guessed I would have to get one when Emerson’s next TV movie came out. “Other than that, just work. I’ve got two new yachts down there I’m designing if you want to go check in on them. I’m sure they’d love some coffee.”
He saluted me. “Yes, ma’am. I believe I will.”
I was pretty sure that Coffee Kyle was the only barista in the known universe who left his coffee shop wide open and unattended while he made deliveries to his locals. You could buy regular and decaf on the honor system by leaving your dollar in the basket. If you wanted something fancy, Kyle came back every thirty minutes to serve you. But if you lived in town, he knew what you wanted and was probably going to bring it to you anyway, which made it pretty rare to have people in the shop unless they were there for the atmosphere—which, frankly, the place was a little low on, if you asked me.
Kyle hugged me, which was the best part of my day, sadly.
I looked down to see a text from Emerson. Call me when you get a few minutes. That really was strange. It was only seven a.m. in LA. My little Emmy was never up that early. She had probably started some new aerial yoga or zum-barre-lates something or other. I had started to dial her when I heard the bell tinkle yet again and had to end the call.
At first, I thought the man walking through the door was a tourist, which was rare this time of year. He was a little bit overweight, and had a ruddy, dark complexion, that particular mixture of too much sun and too much alcohol that makes a face look aged yet somehow youthful, as though the wearer of said face was still squeezing every square inch of fun out of life. “I’m Sheldon,” he said. I instantly remembered the phone conversation from the day before and realized that while, no, he wasn’t someone I would call a friend, I had definitely seen Sheldon around.
“Oh, of course,” I said, walking out from behind the counter. “The fifty-three Huckins Linwood. Thanks so much for getting in touch with me.” Sheldon had called to let me know he had a boat coming in for an extensive rebuild. It had been badly damaged in a recent hurricane off the Florida coast, and Sheldon was one of the foremost experts in the country in its particular make and model. While he was taking care of the structure of things, he asked me if I’d like to come alongside and take care of the, as he put them, “girly parts” of the boat. I would have preferred the term “aesthetic elements,” but, quite frankly, it was winter, business was slow, and I could use the cash.
I could tell already that my new buddy Sheldon was a man of few words. He motioned his head to the door and said, “Well, you want to see it?”
“Oh, now?” I said, grabbing for my jacket and hanging my camera around my neck, thinking that now wasn’t really great, as I had two daughters to call. But this shouldn’t take too long. I could redesign three staterooms and a salon in my sleep.
Little did I know that, after today, sleep wasn’t something I would be getting much of for a long, long time.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Slightly South of Simple includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Kristy Woodson Harvey. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
The last thing Caroline Murphy expects to hear when she’s seven months pregnant is that her marriage is falling apart. In the wake of this news, she packs up her bags and flies south with her eleven-year-old daughter to her mother’s home in Peachtree Bluff, Georgia. But Caroline isn’t the only Murphy girl who’s returning home: both of her younger sisters, Emerson and Sloane, find themselves right back in their mother’s arms for one reason or another. Slightly South of Simple is a chronicle of sisterhood, motherhood, marriage, and all the ways secrets weave themselves in and out of one’s life, filled with Southern charm and plenty of heart.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the title of both the book and the series. By the novel’s end, do you think the title fits the work? Is there another title you would select?
2. Discuss Caroline as the novel goes on. Do you think she comes to any sort of epiphany before the end of the novel? Does she come to appreciate her hometown? Can you relate to her relationship troubles, parenting style, or values? Why or why not?
3. Ansley admits to the reader early in the novel that her financial situation after her husband’s death was quite dire. In the pursuant chapter, Caroline mentions that she has a “nest egg” to fall back on and is less afraid of leaving her husband because of it. Do you agree with Ansley’s decision to keep these secrets from her daughters? What other secrets do the members of the Murphy family keep from one another? By the time the book is complete, have any of these secrets been resolved?
4. Rumors are a prevalent motif in the novel, from rumors of James’s affair with Edie, to rumors of a love triangle between Kyle, Caroline, and Emerson, and beyond. Do you believe that there is a difference between the rumors spread amongst the group in Peachtree Bluff versus New York City? What is the root of these respective rumors in the novel? How do the characters respond to gossip? Do you think any of them handle it better than the other?
5. Caroline determines the best way to resolve the feud between her mother and Mr. Solomon is by tearing down the fence between their yards. How do the neighbors resolve their issues and reconcile their differences in the novel? Have the other characters mended other figurative fences between one another? Discuss the different boundaries, both physical and figurative, that the characters may have placed between one another and why they may have done so.
6. Discuss the lingering feelings of loss experienced by the Murphy women by losing Carter in the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. Why do you think Caroline was so comfortable with moving back to New York so soon after the attacks? Why do you think her other sisters, Emerson and Sloane, stayed away? By the book’s end, do you think any of them will return? Why or why not?
7. On page 283, Caroline says, “[ . . . ] I knew that no one else would ever measure up. I would spend my entire life comparing every man with the one I had fallen so hard for. Young love is only for the young. Nothing else compares.” Take a moment as a group and discuss your first loves. Is your current partner someone you met as a young person? Do you think this statement is true for Caroline, Ansley, or the other women in the novel? Why or why not?
8. Sloane’s husband, Adam, is serving in Iraq throughout the course of the novel. Discuss the ways she seeks to keep him present in her son’s lives and consider the greater affect that a parent’s absence has on her family.
9. “Mother’s are supposed to know what to do, but there’s no handbook for this. There’s no appropriate response for something this horrible.” (Page 341) In Slightly South of Simple, there are many variations of loss. As a group, discuss the ways Ansley supports her daughters. How would you handle the circumstances? As a group, discuss the different ways your own parents or siblings have helped you through hard times. Do you think it’s different when the support is from a mother versus a father, a sister versus a brother? Why or why not?
10. Forgiveness is a major theme in the novel. Are you surprised by Caroline’s decision to forgive James? What would you do in her shoes? Similarly, discuss the ways Jack has forgiven Ansley, Caroline has forgiven her sisters, and beyond. Do you feel that Caroline has grown as a character as a result of having moved to her home in the presence of her sisters and mother?
11. The narration alternates between Ansley and Caroline throughout the novel. How does this push the plot along? Do you think it gives you greater insight into the characters or their lives? Why or why not?
12. Jack has given Ansley ample time to come around to his wishes. Do his intentions seem genuine? Does your impression of him change over the course of the novel?
13. Betrayal plays a large role in the novel, from Jamess’ affair to Emerson’s acting role. How do the characters move forward and seek forgiveness for their wrongdoings? Are they largely successful in achieving forgiveness?
14. Of all of the women in the book, who do you feel you relate to the most? The least?
15. Slightly South of Simple is the first book in a three-book series. Discuss what you think may happen to Ansley, Caroline, Emerson, Sloane, and the Murphy family in the next few books.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Neither Caroline nor Emerson have particularly “Southern” diets. Consider sharing some gluten-free and vegan sweets or smoothies for your book club. Great (and delicious) vegan recipes can be found at ChefChloe.com and gluten-free recipes can be found at GlutenFreeGirl.com.
2. For your next book club, read Kristy Woodson Harvey’s other novels, Dear Carolina or Lies and Other Acts of Love, Mary Alice Monroe’s The Summer Girls, or Elin Hilderbrand’s The Rumor. Do these novels remind you of Slightly South of Simple?
3. Interior design is a big part of Ansley’s life. Talk to your fellow book club members about a possible renovation you’ve been considering. Take the time to research new interior design techniques and processes or take a class together at a local art school.
4. Connect with Kristy Woodson Harvey on Facebook, Twitter, and visit her official website at: KristyWoodsonHarvey.com. Consider inviting her to Skype in with your book club.
A Conversation with Kristy Woodson Harvey
Have you ever lived on the northeast or in New York? Do you think there’s a real appeal for southerners to leave for another place and return home?
Is this something you saw with your own family and friends from North Carolina? Yes! We lived in Manhattan half the time when I was a little girl. I always thought that I would move back. Even now, I’m very comfortable there, which might be a little surprising considering every town I’ve lived in since had a population of less than 50,000. I think there is definitely a tendency for southerners to grow up and move to the big city. There’s something very exciting about the unknown, about the idea of “making it” in New York. But I think sometimes it’s just too big of a change! I read somewhere that the average southerner makes it about eighteen months in New York. Maybe it’s the winters. Who knows!
You studied journalism at UNC Chapel Hill and also have a master’s degree in English. Is your process in researching your novels at all similar to any of the skills you learned while studying journalism? What is different for you about your process?
Oh, absolutely. I learned from writing columns how to find my voice as a writer, and that is definitely a skill I have used as an author. I learned how a story “feels” when it is complete. In addition to that, that’s where my love of story telling comes from. I still love telling true stories, but it’s so much fun to get to make them up. I also have a long list of research “dos and don’ts" in my head from journalism school and am always keeping in mind what are acceptable sources. On the flip side, it’s very nice to know that, from time to time, I can make something up if I need to.
In that vein, you keep a design blog, Design Chic, with your mother. What is your process for researching new posts for the blog? Do you think you’ll open a design shop like Ansley’s in the novel?
The “research” is the most fun part because it’s usually just Mom and me and some coffee and a lot of chatting. We both read tons of magazines and are always searching for new designers, new trends, new brands, new things we think our readers will love. It’s so much fun to look back six years when we started the blog and see what we were writing about then and what we are writing about now. It’s like a working time capsule of the evolution of our tastes and design trends. I never say never . . . I do have this thought in the back of my mind that it would be so fun to open a bookstore where all of the displays are antiques for sale. But, in reality, I know what it takes to run a business, and it’s always more fun in your mind than in reality! But you never know!
Further to the above, can you tell us a bit about working with your mother? Does this change the dynamic in your relationship?
My mom and I have always been very good friends, so working together has been great. There is definitely a business side to our relationship that wasn’t there in the past, but we live five hours apart from each other so brainstorming ideas, choosing new designers to profile, even negotiating with advertisers, keeps us close.
“Gransley” is a unique way to refer to a grandmother. The combination of Ansley’s name and “Grandma” are sweet. Was this nickname inspired by someone you know personally?
No. But grandmother names are very important! Speaking of my mom, she picked the names for this book. I told her about the characters and she went to work finding the perfect names for them. She suggested Ansley for the mother, which I loved, and when I started writing I realized that “Gransley” would be a fantastic grandmother name. Then I was totally sold!
Your portrayal of Caroline, Emerson, and Sloane’s relationship is a vibrant picture of sisterhood. Do you have sisters or brothers? Is their relationship inspired by people in your life?
I am an only child, actually, so I feel like, in some ways, I’ve been studying family dynamics my entire life. My mom has three sisters, and we are a very close-knit family, so I spent a lot of time with them growing up. I’ve always been fascinated by how close they are, and a lot of those dynamics played into writing the Peachtree sisters. These characters aren’t like my mom and her sisters, but that bond between them is very true to life.
Where did you spend your summers as a child? Did you travel to a place similar to Peachtree Bluff? Where in the south would you recommend your readers travel to experience a similar place of beauty?
We went to Debordieu, Soth Carolina, every summer, which is an incredibly beautiful part of the South Carolina Lowcountry. But Peachtree Bluff is heavily inspired by Beaufort, North Carolina, where I live now. The islands and sandbars, the small town full of quirky characters . . . It’s all a part of where I live, and I have been dying to write a town like this for some time. More than any of my other books, Peachtree Bluff becomes a character. I hope that readers love it as much as I do.
You come up with a pretty clever way to force reconciliation between Ansley and Mr. Solomon. Where did you get the inspiration to literally have the fence removed? Was this inspired by an event in your life, a friend’s, or perhaps another book or film?
Don’t we all have a fence in our lives? Mine happens to be, literally, a fence. Let’s just leave it at that.
How did you come up with the title, Slightly South of Simple?
In all honesty, I don’t know! I usually write the book and then choose the title but this book was unique in that I brainstormed a huge list of titles before I was finished writing. Slightly South of Simple struck me right off the bat and, when the editorial team at Gallery picked it from a huge list immediately, we all knew we had found a winner.
What inspired you to write contemporary fiction? Do you think you’ll explore another genre, say historical fiction or fantasy?
I read a lot of contemporary fiction, so I think when stories started coming to me that was the genre I was daydreaming. But I also love historical fiction, and I do have some historical characters that have always fascinated me. I can’t imagine that I would ever write fantasy or mystery simply because I think that’s a whole different type of imagination! For now, contemporary fiction has come. I think I’ll stick with it for the foreseeable future.
Do you have a favorite book that you return to year after year? What makes a book special to you? Do you find yourself more interested in plot-driven or character-driven works?
Yes! A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. I read it for the first time in third grade and have read it every year since. It wasn't until much later that I realized Betty Smith actually lived in North Carolina. I was this North Carolina girl who had never had any real problems and I felt so connected to Francie Nolan, a Brooklyn girl with an alcoholic father living in poverty. We thought and felt so many of the same things. I think it was the first time I realized the power of story to connect us. I’ve been fascinated by it ever since, and every year, I find something new to love about this book. I am for sure most moved by character-driven stories, and I think I write them as well. The inner workings of people’s minds, even as they pertain to the simplest things, always fascinate me.
Is there a particular reality show you modeled Ladies Who Lunch after? Are you a fan of reality television programs? If so, which ones are you currently watching?
Well, it was supposed to be a bit like The Real Housewives. I’ll catch an episode of The Real Housewives of New York from time to time, but I’m not a devoted fan. I have to admit that I have watched every season of The Bachelor since it first aired when I was in high school. All of my high school friends would get together every week to watch it, then my college friends, and even in grad school. Now, I always tell myself that I won’t watch the next season, but I always do. I’m not sure if it’s the good memories or what, but I can’t stop myself!
Can you share a bit about your next project or the next book in the Peachtree Bluffs series?
The next book in the Peachtree Bluff series is Sloane, the middle sister’s, book, and I am so excited about it. She is going through quite a bit of turmoil in her life in the present. Her love story, which takes place through a series of flashbacks and letters, is one of my favorites I’ve ever written. We also get to delve deeper into Ansley’s relationship with her mother and her brothers, which is fun—and a little tricky. I also haven’t been able to keep myself from writing just a bit of Emerson’s story. Let’s just say, the future for the women of Peachtree Bluff still might be Slightly South of Simple. But it’s looking bright all the same!