Amiable debut novel of life in the nonglitzy part of Florida, the swampy confines of the Georgia borderlands.
Utina is a definitive backwater, literally. But it’s close enough to Jacksonville and the interstate to be attractive as the site for potential development, a prospect that makes some of its oddball mix of residents very, very happy. From the best family around, Arla Bolton—she of the mangled foot, wherein hangs a tale—went off years before and married Dean Bravo, proving that good girls love bad boys and that, as her mother archly observes, “[l]ove won’t be enough.” Sure enough, years later, shiftless Dean now smells money in the air. He and Arla, meanwhile, have begat a far-flung family that, as one member puts it, is a “frigging pack of oddballs and failures for whom he’d been wrestling with shame and ambivalence his entire life.” Well, so it is with all families. Other characters in Arla’s orbit are clearly more worthy of a share, such as the rugged young man named Biaggio, who “was a handsome man, but so beaten. Oh, but they were all so beaten.” In a slowly, gently unfolding comedy of manners, Smith skillfully sets multiple stories in motion, most, it seems, designed to showcase the vanity of human wishes. Smith is a kind and understanding creator, and even the most venal of her characters, we see, is just trying to get by—and usually not succeeding.
In the end, Smith overlaps territory John Sayles explored in Sunshine State, but with a more generous sense of our foibles. It’s a promising start—and a lot of fun.