The Roaring ’20s come alive through the pages of an old yellowed manuscript that reveals a long-buried, sordid tale of love and betrayal among society’s finest in Wilmington, North Carolina.
In Flinn’s (Allegiance, 2016, etc.) cleverly designed novel within a novel, four friends come together on Anne Borden “AB” Montgomery’s front porch to read a story written in 1930 and recently found among some of AB’s old papers. Attached to the manuscript was a letter from its author, Perry Whitmore, to AB’s mother, Sylvie Meeks. Perry, a friend of Sylvie’s brother Kip, explains that he composed the novel from letters he received from Kip during the summer of 1928 and Sylvie’s diary (given to Kip in 1929) covering the same period. Kip and Sylvie provide the manuscript’s alternating voices. AB and her three companions (80-year-old Bernard May and 30-somethings Elle McLarin and Nate Aldridge) take turns reading Perry’s novel aloud over successive summer nights. It begins when Sylvie and Kip go to a Saturday night dance at Lumina, the Wrightsville Beach pavilion “Palace of Light,” in May 1928. They run into Catherine and Clifton Carmichael, another sibling duo, whom they have known since childhood. The Carmichaels, sitting at the top of Wilmington aristocracy, and the Meeks, merely a family of means, move in different circles. But this fateful summer, the magic of music and dancing leads to risky romance—and violence. Flinn’s evocative prose re-creates the era: “Cicadas cranked up their song as a backdrop to the city noises, of the trolley bell clanging, train whistles blowing, automobiles rumbling along, dogs barking, and the occasional clip-clopping of a horse-drawn cart.” She captures the exuberance of the decade’s dance, fashion, and changing social conventions as well as the more sinister underbelly of the Jim Crow South. Catherine’s sordid backstory, only partially disclosed before the manuscript’s dramatic denouement, skirts the edges of credulity but nonetheless packs a shocking punch. The evolving relationships between AB and Bernard and Elle and Nate create a satisfying narrative symmetry between the two storylines—one past and the other contemporary.
An engaging, often tender tale filled with vibrant period details.