Mary Alice Monroe and I have the same birthday, May 25. This is the first thing I tell her, giddily, because I've just finished her book, and I'm an instant fan of the author who has been heralded as the Queen of Lowcountry fiction. She laughs, telling me about a close friend who also has the same birthday as her, right down to the year. "Birthday twins!" we exclaim, and I'm sucked into Monroe's world, just as I suspected I would be.
Monroe's latest novel, A Lowcountry Wedding, is the sequel to the Lowcountry Summer trilogy, a series about three half-sisters who come together one summer at their grandmother's beach house. Monroe says that the central theme of A Lowcountry Wedding is the question: What is a Charleston wedding? As the number one wedding destination in the country, Charleston's gotta have more than just pretty landscapes, right? "Any wedding is a heartfelt, family affair," says Monroe. "But there's a special history in Charleston."
The novel tells the story of the sisters getting ready for two weddings, which take place back-to-back on a weekend in May. Carson wants a beach wedding but has agreed to a plantation wedding, and her pregnant-out-of-wedlock bridezilla sister Harper wants a plantation wedding, but, well, has agreed to a beach wedding. Older sister Dora is divorced and not looking to marry her high school sweetheart, even though he's proposed — twice. And then there's Atticus, an entirely new character, who happens to be an African-American reverend from Atlanta. Oh, and the girls' half-brother.
Confusing? I thought so at first, but fear not readers, this ain't Monroe's first rodeo. While you may have to suspend your belief for a hot second — the siblings' father was abnormally busy impregnating women — the story flows as smooth as silk. The characters are all likeable enough, especially Atticus, whose own alcoholism ties him tightest to Carson, a recovering addict herself. The rawness of some of their conversations puts meat on the bones of this beach read.
And it is a beach read. Wedding details explode on every page, especially in the hands of the two grandmothers — Mamaw and Granny James, Harper's other grandmother. I know, I know, it's a lot of characters. Stay with me. With everything from dresses to food to drinks — you better believe Firefly spirits get a shout-out, and yes, they did actually create a cocktail called A Lowcountry Wedding — the book is every bride-to-be's dream.
The grandmothers discuss etiquette as it relates to weddings, with Mamaw quoting Emily Post, and Granny James using Debrett's as if it were the bible. "Even the most nontraditional girl wants some tradition," says Monroe, who eschews tradition in all of her characters. It is this fine balance of contemporary concerns like premarital pregnancy, divorce, and the ticking of older brides' biological clocks, with traditional values like family, true love, and the idea of home, that elevates Monroe's book to another level of beach read. Bungalow book, perhaps?
Monroe has become a grandmother herself in the years since she first created the character of Mamaw. "I think my voice comes through in the book through my beliefs and values. I've become a grandmother four times over since I started writing [these novels]. I have an insight into the power of a grandmother's love," she says.
The author of 19 books — the 20th comes out next fall — Monroe isn't just passionate about her grandkids. In a 2009 City Paper interview, Monroe said that she'd made a decision a decade earlier to start writing novels with a purpose. And she has. Starting with 2002's The Beach House, which discussed environmental issues surrounding the loggerhead turtle, Monroe has woven Mother Nature into all of her Lowcountry-based novels.
Monroe is clearly invested in the environmental issues she targets — she even worked as a volunteer at the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key, Fla. as research for the Lowcountry Summer series. "I wanted readers to appreciate the majesty of what is wild," she says.
In A Lowcountry Wedding, she does this by developing Carson's relationship with Delphine, an Atlantic bottle nosed dolphin the sisters met in the first novel. A 30-something recovering alcoholic, Carson utilizes her connection with Delphine to heal her hurts. "It's not my job to proselytize or preach," says Monroe of her novels. "I allow readers to meet animals through the characters."
While the dolphin Delphine was inspired by a real dolphin, Tursi, who Monroe worked with at the dolphin research center, her human characters are influenced by the people she meets every day. "I never base a character entirely on a real person. It would inhibit the growth of the character in my mind," she says. But she adds, "I can't make something up that is more interesting than real life."