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'Heart of Palm' by Laura Lee Smith is a remarkable debut novel

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Published Apr. 3, 2013

In many ways, Laura Lee Smith's Florida-set debut novel, Heart of Palm, is about loving things to death — places and people.

It's set in Utina, a bitty town on the Intracoastal between St. Augustine and Jacksonville, the kind of sleepy place you might find if you get off the interstate and past the suburbs, the kind natives and long-timers call "Old Florida." The fictional Utina, Smith writes, "inauspiciously named for the chief of a tribe of doomed Timucuan Indians, had been known historically for two things: palms and booze." The markets for Palm Sunday fronds and moonshine vanished decades ago, but now, in the 21st century, Utina is poised for transformation: Real estate developers from as far away as Atlanta are sniffing around its waterfront properties, and the town's first Publix is going up.

Whether to sell is just one of the problems confronting the Bravo family, whose story is the bruised, brave heart of Smith's book. There's matriarch Arla Bravo, still a statuesque, red-haired beauty at 60, who lost half her left foot on her honeymoon but rules her household with an iron hand.

Situated on the Intracoastal in a crumbling three-story Queen Anne mansion called Aberdeen, that household consists of Arla, her handsome but half-crazy daughter, Sofia, and one Biaggio Dunkirk, "one of those West Virginia corn-fed badasses who'd seen the inside of a jail cell more than the high school cafeteria" but "has settled down to a quiet life of peace and the systematic avoidance of extradition" in a trailer in the side yard of Aberdeen.

One of Arla's three sons, Frank, hasn't gotten much farther from his childhood home. He lives a few blocks away but works every day as bartender-cook-manager at Uncle Henry's, a fish restaurant perched on the Intracoastal just a 15-minute walk through the woods from Aberdeen, and owned by Arla.

Frank dreamed of college, of living in the North Carolina mountains, of marrying a straight-talking girl named Elizabeth, but at 40 he's still frying fish, pulling drafts and refereeing the fights between Arla and Sofia, the latest of which has left an upright Steinway piano blocking the main hall of their house.

As for Elizabeth, she is now married to Frank's older brother, Carson Bravo, who has gotten as far away as St. Augustine, at least. An investment manager with a nice house and cars, a pretty wife and adorkable daughter, he seems like the Bravo success story — maybe — although he and Frank hardly speak.

Only two Bravos have escaped Utina. Arla's youngest and favorite son, Will, was his brothers' partner in crime when they were all teenagers — they were wild boys whose pranks were usually harmless and unpunished, because "it's hard to dust an alligator for fingerprints." But one night a prank went wrong and Will died, a death that punched a vast hole through the middle of the family that hasn't healed more than twenty years later.

The other escapee is Arla's husband, Dean, who walked out after Will's death and hasn't been heard from since. Dean was the proud progenitor of his sons' wild ways, a Utina native descended from Spanish immigrants. As a young man, Dean's dark good looks, startling blue eyes and sexy swagger made him notorious even in St. Augustine — as he finds out in the novel's prologue. Driving a lonesome road toward that city one day in 1963, Dean happens upon a vision that will shape his whole life: a 6-foot-tall girl with "skin like white linen" and a braid of red hair, walking along the road wearing nothing but a sky-blue bikini and a pair of sandals.

"You're Dean Bravo" are the first words Arla says to him as she steps into his truck, and he's a goner, even though he knows her upper-class family will be horrified at the idea of marrying their only child to a redneck bad boy like him. The story of their swift romance and its sudden demise, told with breathtaking skill and steamy detail in the prologue, sets the stage for the rest of the novel.

Heart of Palm is Smith's first novel, and it's a knockout. With its knowing but sweet-natured humor, its flawed and believable characters, its convincing depiction of small-town life, its delicious little plot twists and its insight about the human heart, it reminded me often of the novels of Richard Russo, especially Nobody's Fool and Empire Falls.

Smith, who lives in St. Augustine, creates a vivid sense of place, viewing Florida with a loving but unsentimental eye. Happily, she captures the Southern rhythms of her characters' speech without having to resort to outlandish dialect writing, and she deftly peels back the layers of family relationships. She's a welcome addition to the ranks of Florida writers, and Heart of Palm is a fine, bittersweet taste of the Sunshine State.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435.

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