Just before I finished Cutting for Stone, my copy of Poet’s and Writer’s magazine arrives on my doorstep with a cover article on “The Game Changers – Four New York literary agents who turned their debut writers into last summer’s top selling authors.” Of the four choices here, the novel Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel intrigues me the most, probably because the blurb on the book describes it as “A deeply engrossing tale of love, family, friendship and motherhood. . . . [A]n elegantly crafted work of art and a great read.” Since I’ve just finished writing a novel that I hope could be described in this same way, I have to read to find out how this writer got it right. I also learn that the author spent ten years (!) writing this 306 page novel and I wonder what took so long. I flip to the back of the book and learn that the ten year thing is not exactly true. What is true is that she wrote the first part of it while at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and then, life intervened, and while she had a fellowship, did some teaching, worked for an Internet company, moved and had her first child, the book languished. In fact, she says, “It took one year to write the first half, another year and a half to finish the rest a few weeks to sell it, and eighteen months for it to lumber through the publishing process.” Okay, that’s more like it, I thought, still jealous that it only took a few weeks to sell it though.
While reading Stiltsville, I keep waiting for something to happen. Possibly I continue reading because I love being dropped into this place in Florida where the protagonist, Frances Ellerby, goes for a visit and then decides to stay. It’s a place where a whole community of houses is built on stilts in the water of Biscayne Bay and it’s hot and sunny all the time (opposite of drizzly, cold Seattle). I love the atmosphere so I decide to stay too. In this place, Frances meets her future husband and best friend and makes her life. The story of the novel is the story of that life, an ordinary life filled with the usual ups and downs. She marries Dennis, the young law student she meets in the opening scene, they have a child, they face some financial problems, she’s tempted to have an affair, and their daughter grows up and goes to college, gets married young. They face the death of parents and their own impending old age.
The major event is the hurricane that wipes out their Stiltsville house. Frances and Dennis live in a bigger house on the canal now but continue to go to Stiltsville to fish and swim, recharge their souls. But even this major event is told matter of factly. They take a boat out several days after the hurricane to see if the house is still standing. It’s not. Frances says she thinks they should rebuild but they don’t really consider it because the leases for all the stilt houses will run out in five years and the municipal authorities will not renew them. Stiltsville will become a thing of the past, just a memory. Time is up. And then time is up for Dennis. In the last part of the novel, Frances and their family and friends watch Dennis deteriorate and finally die from ALS.
The ending is sad but I didn’t cry, unlike the “Game Changer” agent who said she cried at the end every time she read it. Instead, I’m a little annoyed at the last line of the novel. Frances, alone with Dennis on his death bed, tells him she loves him and then, “Thank you,” she says. “Thank you for my life.” It’s picky but I want her to thank him for their life, not hers. Because she still has her life and she moves on. That said, the novel is worth reading.
I’m recommending you read Stiltsville because, though I still can’t put my finger on why, this novel has stayed with me. It certainly wasn’t that there was tension on every page, or even in every chapter. Maybe I just want to travel to Florida to experience that atmosphere. I want to know if there are any houses on stilts that still exist. I want to jump off the deck and swim from one of them. I want to look for eels and exotic fish. I want to feel the sun and the heat.