Ever wonder what happens to Florida Man, or Florida Woman, after the viral video?
St. Augustine writer Deb Rogers offers a wild and woolly answer in her debut novel, titled — what else? — “Florida Woman.”
Jamie Hawthorne hasn’t been very lucky. When she was a kid, first her parents and then her beloved older brother, Jason, walked out of her life. She finished growing up in foster homes, and since she aged out of them she’s made a paycheck-to-paycheck living waiting tables in the beach towns around St. Augustine.
Then came the viral video. I don’t want to give away too much, but it involves one of those Tiki bars with dollar bills stapled to the walls, a fire and a pelican.
What, no alligator? Don’t worry, Rogers will get to the alligator. But in the meantime Jamie finds herself publicly shamed, broke and about to go to jail.
Then her lawyer, Kayla, works a little magic and gets Jamie an alternative sentence, spending the summer working at Atlas, a sanctuary for macaque monkeys in the wilds of Central Florida. She’ll be working outdoors in the buggy, boiling heat while wearing an ankle monitor, but it sounds better than jail.
Once she arrives at Atlas, Jamie is taken aback, even though she’s a native Floridian. “Atlas held court,” Rogers writes, “on a primitive stretch of land that had been avoided by indigenous farmers and settlers alike, shunned by thieves and developers, skipped over by Flagler and Disney. Relentlessly, tenaciously wild.”
The large property has a scatter of buildings — a couple of geodesic domes, a few A-frames and ranch houses — but most of it is untamed, spreading oaks and tall slash pines and thickets of palmetto. And a lake for the alligators.
But Jamie is dazzled by the three women who run Atlas. Dagmar is a no-nonsense veterinarian, Tierra a nurturing cook and manager, and Sari is the one in charge, a passionate advocate for rescuing the macaques from laboratories, zoos and private owners who mistreat them.
The three of them welcome Jamie warmly, delighted by her work ethic and by her computer skills — they want to start a livecam of the macaques on their website as a fundraiser. Jamie, unaccustomed to warmth and respect, is thrilled, impressed by the women’s confidence and their ability to look lovely while doing the often-grungy work of running an animal sanctuary.
And she falls in love with the macaques. Atlas houses several dozen of them in a huge enclosure where they’re well fed and tended by Sari, Tierra, Dagmar and a group of volunteers.
With their fuzzy fur and their startlingly humanlike faces, the macaques are pretty irresistible. The volunteers have to be reminded constantly not to go near the enclosure; not only can the monkeys’ nimble fingers reach through the fence and tear off a necklace or pair of sunglasses in a second, but they have razor-sharp fangs and superhuman strength. Oh, and some of the Atlas monkeys are carriers of hepatitis B, infected on purpose for medical research before they were rescued, so even a minor bite can be dangerous.
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Jamie loves observing them and learning their personalities. She feels she can’t complain about anything to Sari, Tierra and Dagmar because they’ve rescued her, too, but in early-morning talks she confides in the macaques about her ramshackle quarters in a distant part of the property and the weird random disappearance of some of her meager belongings.
As the initial glow wears off, Jamie begins to see Atlas has its problems. One is money. The property belongs to Sari’s mother, Flora, who lives there but clearly won’t live much longer. Flora has changed her will to leave Atlas to Sari and the macaques, but Sari’s sister, Anna Beth, is fighting it.
Much as Jamie loves the macaques, she’s bemused that the three women see the animals as wise teachers, almost godlike figures — and disturbed when she observes strange gatherings at night, when she’s not supposed to be out.
She also struggles to parse exactly what the relationships are among the trio. Are all those hugs and hair-stroking and neck massages friendly affection or signs of something more — a question that becomes more important as Jamie develops a crush on Tierra.
The creepy goings-on are firmly grounded in Rogers’ vivid descriptions of the wild part of Florida (and of the enticing food that Tierra and Jamie prepare for humans and macaques).
Rogers skillfully keeps both the reader and Jamie off balance about what’s really going on at Atlas, building suspense effectively. Jamie’s engaging first-person narration is occasionally interspersed with drafts of documents Sari is writing for the website, with Tierra’s and Dagmar’s comments, revealing what Jamie doesn’t know as events at Atlas careen out of control.
Jamie will find out the depth of her own resources and who her friends really are — and how much fur they have.
By Deb Rogers
Hanover Square Press, 352 pages, $27.99