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Family tensions combust in ‘Heart of Palm’

“Most people never understood why Arla went and married a Bravo,” explains the resident guide-slash-gossip in the prologue to “Heart of Palm,” Laura Lee Smith’s fine, funny first novel. It’s a voice reminiscent of Richard Russo’s (think “Mohawk” and “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 a 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 — 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, Fla., and their profitable restaurant, which Frank runs, has long been the watering hole of choice for locals. Carson runs a successful investment business.

There’s just one problem: The Bravos are ready to strangle each other. As the story opens on the morning of July 4th, their dysfunctional relationships are erupting in small but significant explosions. Frank wakes from an erotic dream about his first and maybe only love — Carson’s unhappy wife, Elizabeth. Sofia and Arla are at each other’s throats over a hoarding issue. Carson shows up to needle Frank, rekindling a simmering, “decades-old blame” the two of them can barely keep at bay. All are clues to why Arla considers this holiday “a wretched, hateful day.”

So when an Atlanta developer offers the Bravos a sizable fortune for all that waterfront property, is it any surprise that some want to sell and some don’t? Like the saw palmettos of the title, the family is deeply rooted, “more dug in” with every year, “more resistant to the changes that could have revived them, could have renewed them.”

To reach an agreement will mean unearthing the anguish that has left them so damaged. But in the process, they’ll also revisit the grit and humor that’s gotten them this far. There will be pranks involving alligators and cop cars. There will be a woman’s tombstone that becomes Arla’s closest confidante. There will be booze and blood and broken noses.

And above all, there’s Dean Bravo. Even in flashbacks, this prince of bad luck steals the show with his flawed, valiant responses to love and life: “He wanted [Arla] all the time, every day, every minute. He drank like a fiend. He brawled at the Cue and Brew. He crashed his truck into the wall at the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine when he’d seen a college boy making eyes at her at a party. Then he spent a night in the drunk tank, hammered out the dents in the truck and drove back to wait outside her bedroom window at dawn on New Year’s Day.”

Though most of the events are seen through the Bravos’ eyes, this is a rowdy, crowded book with an extensive supporting cast, including Frank’s coworker Morgan, who also owns a piece of the Bravo pie; Biaggio, a kindhearted moving man who patiently stalks Sofia; and Mac, a disbarred lawyer who referees the Bravo brothers’ fights.

The story they all come together to tell is about loss — breathtaking, harrowing loss and how it can be withstood — and the power of family to shoulder the burden and find forgiveness. But for many in Utina, it’s also about a less dramatic heartbreak that occurs in the wake of certain choices, the life that happens while we’re looking the other way.

Smith, who lives in St. Augustine, excels at bringing this north Florida hamlet to life. Her dialogue is pitch-perfect, her landscapes fragrant with jasmine and yellow pine, and she eloquently evokes the mixture of tenderness and callousness essential to small-town relationships.

Early on, Arla says Dean was the “bitter medicine” that “brought her to herself.” Smith’s novel carries much the same mixed blessing. In the end — which comes with a delightful twist — the guilty pleasure of “Heart of Palm” is its steadfast tangle of rage and grief and love, a heaping dose of Southern soul with a whole lot of chutzpah thrown in.

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