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“Most people never understood why Arla went and married a Bravo,” explains the resident guide-slash-gossip in the prologue to Heart of Palm (Grove-Press, $24), Laura Lee Smith’s fine, funny first novel. It’s a voice reminiscent of Richard Russo’s in Empire Falls, a likable and knowing town historian who introduces us to debutante Arla Bolton, a creature so exquisite that “the world genuflected before her.”

Arla’s just 18 in 1964 when she announces her plan to wed the blackest sheep she can find in her hometown of St. Augustine: hard-drinking bad boy, Dean Bravo, whose family tree boasts rum runners, drunks and an older brother doing a stretch at the state pen.

Her father is speechless. Her mother, horrified. But I love him, Arla protests. “‘Oh, Arla,’” her mother warns. “‘Dean Bravo? Love won’t be enough.’”

Sure enough, by day three of their honeymoon, a freak accident ensures that nothing will ever be the same for the two lovebirds. There is ruin — and it comes mercifully quick, without a lot of suspense — but it isn’t the kind we expect.  It’s “a blunted, soft jolt” that could also describe the eventual disillusionment in many a marriage.

When the story picks up 40 years later, Arla, now 62, shares a home with her grown daughter, Sofia; sons Frank and Carson live nearby. Love has not been enough, as the prologue has already made clear. But though Dean ran out on them years ago, the Bravos have done well.

They own a “pristine stretch of Intracoastal Waterway frontage” in tiny Utina, Florida. Arla’s profitable restaurant, which Frank has been running since he was a teenager, has long been the watering hole of choice for the locals. Older brother Carson runs an investment business in St. Augustine.

There’s just one problem: the Bravos are ready to strangle each other. (more…)

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Even if your mom wrestles alligators for a living, she’s still your mother.

Ditto if your dad runs a Florida gator-based theme park called Swamplandia! and calls himself Chief Bigtree. Family is family, and when one falls apart, holding it together can be as tough as prying the jaws of a bull alligator off your arm.

Miami native Karen Russell first introduced the Bigtrees—the Chief, his wife Hilola, son Kiwi, and daughters Ava and Osceola—five years ago in her enchanting debut collection of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.

Swamplandia! (Knopf, $24.95, 320 pp) takes up where St. Lucy’s left off, backtracking as Ava narrates the family’s history. As the novel opens, the Chief and his kids are bumbling along after the untimely death of Hilola, who not only held her family together emotionally, but was their park’s star attraction. There’s no time to grieve—as the Chief says, the show must go on.

(more…)

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