I had the pleasure of reading The Land of Mango Sunsets, by Dorothea Benton Frank on the beach in Hawaii – a perfect backdrop for it. The novel begins with a Prologue explaining why the narrator calls the low country of South Carolina “the land of mango sunsets.” It’s a lovely romantic story involving a honeymoon in the South Pacific and a plate of sliced mangoes, “dripping with fleshy sweetness” delivered each morning along with a simple breakfast tray. It’s a charming image of young honeymooners eating mangoes behind mosquito netting in their bed. And it’s an image that stays with the reader, as it has with the narrator, who says, “mangoes were equated with love, tenderness, and hopeful beginnings, and we spent our lives looking everywhere for other examples of them.” We expect then that this will be a story of hopeful beginnings with maybe a little love and tenderness thrown in.
We also discover in the prologue that this place of mango sunsets is the place where the narrator’s family “had kept the same cottage for over one hundred years” and where, as a young girl, she remembered pausing to watch the sunset: “. . . [T]here was a sliver of time late in the day when the sun hung in the western sky, after it stopped burning white and before it dropped into the horizon. For just a few minutes it would transform itself into a red orange orb.” And her father called it “the mango sunset.” Lovely.
Dorothea Benton Frank, like Pat Conroy, has deep feelings about this part of the South Carolina low country, Sullivan’s Island, where “a chorus of bird whistles and song” began and ended each day, where “the pungent smells of salt and wet earth haunt me . . . I could smell rain coming, sense a storm, and knew enough to be afraid of fast water that would spin you away from life in an instant.” The difference though is that for Conroy the land itself is tied up with twisted memories of family dysfunction while for Frank, the low country is a place where family thrived, “there were the leathered but loving hands and peppermint breath of old people, always there to help.” In The Prince of Tides, Conroy has written a lament while Frank has written a love song.
The novel begins in earnest in New York, another parallel to The Prince of Tides but Frank’s protagonist is not just visiting, Miriam Elizabeth Swanson lives in the city and appears to be just as snobbish and cold as her name suggests. It’s the story of Miriam making her life in New York in her fabulous apartment which she has had to subdivide and rent out after her husband divorced her to marry a much younger woman with whom he has children. Miriam is bitter and carries that bitterness with her in most of her personal interactions. She is not particularly likeable. She barely speaks to her two grown sons, having alienated them during her divorce by forcing them to choose between her and their father. She does have one lovely friend and tenant, Kevin Dolan, with whom she shares frequent cocktail hours and dinners and I can’t help wondering, early on, why this man cares for her at all.
Miriam’s problem is that she is striving hard to maintain her place in the Manhattan social scene which her husband’s wealth had insured. But now that he’s gone, so is her social standing. She is snubbed by the league of women who spend their time volunteering for the appropriate charities, in this case, the art museum. Miriam’s other problem is that her other tenant has died suddenly and she needs to rent his space as soon as possible because she needs the income. The new tenant she settles on, Liz Harper, is young and beautiful and, in the way of all strangers who come to town in fiction, is about to stir things up. She will become the catalyst for Miriam’s transformation from bitter peri-menopausal woman to loving mother, grandmother and daughter, and a woman for whom the chance of a grown-up loving relationship with a man is once again possible. But it’s not just the stranger coming to town that saves Miriam, she must also reconnect with her roots in South Carolina and face her mother’s mortality.
I thoroughly enjoyed Miriam’s journey from phony wannabe socialite to loving and loveable woman. I loved it when her nemesis in the volunteer world gets her comeuppance and also watching Miriam take baby steps toward kindness to her fellow human beings and her own family. The writing is solid — lovely in parts — and the characters are well drawn. It’s a story that made me feel good. I can’t help it if I like happy endings. And, too, I love the fact that my copy of The Land of Mango Sunsets has that slightly warped look that happens when most of the reading takes place on the beach with the book resting against a wet swimsuit and perilously close to the surf.