The Hurricane Sisters
by Dorothea Benton Frank
Published by William Morrow
Genre: women’s literature
3.5 / 5
Hurricane season begins early and rumbles all summer long, well into September. Often people’s lives reflect the weather and The Hurricane Sisters is just such a story.
Once again Dorothea Benton Frank takes us deep into the heart of her magical South Carolina Lowcountry on a tumultuous journey filled with longings, disappointments, and, finally, a road toward happiness that is hard earned. There we meet three generations of women buried in secrets. The determined matriarch, Maisie Pringle, at eighty, is a force to be reckoned with because she will have the final word on everything, especially when she’s dead wrong. Her daughter, Liz, is caught up in the classic maelstrom of being middle-age and in an emotionally demanding career that will eventually open all their eyes to a terrible truth. And Liz’s beautiful twenty-something daughter, Ashley, whose dreamy ambitions of her unlikely future keeps them all at odds.
Luckily for Ashley, her wonderful older brother, Ivy, is her fierce champion but he can only do so much from San Francisco where he resides with his partner. And Mary Beth, her dearest friend, tries to have her back but even she can’t talk headstrong Ashley out of a relationship with an ambitious politician who seems slightly too old for her.
Actually, Ashley and Mary Beth have yet to launch themselves into solvency. Their prospects seem bleak. So while they wait for the world to discover them and deliver them from a ramen-based existence, they placate themselves with a hare-brained scheme to make money but one that threatens to land them in huge trouble with the authorities.
So where is Clayton, Liz’s husband? He seems more distracted than usual. Ashley desperately needs her father’s love and attention but what kind of a parent can he be to Ashley with one foot in Manhattan and the other one planted in indiscretion? And Liz, who’s an expert in the field of troubled domestic life, refuses to acknowledge Ashley’s precarious situation. Who’s in charge of this family? The wake-up call is about to arrive.
The Lowcountry has endured its share of war and bloodshed like the rest of the South, but this storm season we watch Maisie, Liz, Ashley, and Mary Beth deal with challenges that demand they face the truth about themselves. After a terrible confrontation they are forced to rise to forgiveness, but can they establish a new order for the future of them all?
Frank, with her hallmark scintillating wit and crisp insight, captures how a complex family of disparate characters and their close friends can overcome anything through the power of love and reconciliation. This is the often hilarious, sometimes sobering, but always entertaining story of how these unforgettable women became The Hurricane Sisters.
The eponymous “hurricane” barely makes an appearance in this book, which means we need to look deeper and figure out what the storm really is.
In the case of the Waters women, only one actually battles physical elements. The rest fight off storms of the emotional, psychological, and internal variety.
The matriarch, Maisie, is one of those crotchety old gals who says what she means because, really, the clock is ticking. She’s just turned eighty, so why put off till tomorrow what you can say today? Her typical target is her younger daughter Liz, a former model (she appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition!). Maisie isn’t all that thrilled with Liz, although Liz has never done anything wrong. It’s just that she isn’t what Maisie wanted. Liz is a critical mother, not encouraging daughter Ashley’s artistic sensibilities, and even – in a moment Liz herself admits was misguided – sending her gay son to a “conversion” camp. Maisie is very much one of those steel magnolias who rules with an iron fist and a blunt mouth.
For her part, Liz approaches her fifties knowing that her current life isn’t quite what she thought it would be. Husband Clayton spends the weekdays in New York, a situation that suits Liz until she begins to wonder if it’s all that healthy for her marriage. Her children are grown, but she and Clayton subsidize Ashley, something Liz thinks could – and should – stop. But so long as Ashley earns a meager $10 an hour working for an art gallery, Liz and Clayton help her financially. Then there is the matter of Liz’s life’s calling. It isn’t modeling, certainly not now. She’s been working for an organization that helps battered women, and it gives her purpose, even if it draws heavily on her emotional resources. Clayton doesn’t understand why she bothers, but Liz tells him, pointedly and somewhat plaintively, that she wants her life to have a purpose.
However much Ashley deplores needing her parents’ financial handouts, she refuses to give up her dreams of being an artist. She and her best friend Mary Beth live in a family beach house, and each woman also faces romantic obstacles. Ashley finds herself drawn to a charismatic, good looking state senator who exudes a predatory dominance.
As the book summary asks, where is Clayton? Well, he’s in New York, entangled in an affair. He is not just physically absent from the home, but – more critically – emotionally.
The telling of these women’s (and Clayton’s) stories is told with Frank’s typical wit and breezy Southern charm. But it doesn’t feel fulfilling like some of her previous books. Clayton’s story arc resolves particularly quickly and without the messiness you expect. Other than providing a stock character presence, Maisie is also incidental. She passes judgment – both good and bad – but even the advice she dispenses is mediocre.
Where Frank’s book finds its heart is with Liz and Ashley. Their mother-daughter dynamic is thinned to the breaking point, with Ashley’s financial dependency just one point of contention. Liz bears several grudges against her daughter, but Frank draws Liz in such a way that we don’t blame her for those. We empathize. Liz is a woman who has provided for everyone in her family, both in good ways and bad, and now she seeks something for herself, not the least of which is a faithful husband.
Ashley, too, is a character we understand. She’s out of college, with a degree in something she loves but unable to make a living doing it. Mary Beth finds herself in the same position, and Frank is frank when it comes to forcing us to confront what happens to college graduates in today’s economy. These are intelligent young women who want to work and earn a living, but circumstances have forced them to work for hourly pay. That Ashley is attracted to the senator is almost expected. He’s almost an exotic figment in her artistic mind. But here is where Frank’s story becomes not so much weak as disappointing. The unfolding of Ashley’s relationship is not well done by Frank at all. After learning what we do through Liz, we deserve better than how Frank handles Ashley’s romance.
That titular storm, meanwhile, hovers over the story, offering a potential threat. The thing about hurricanes is that they can be forecast. You can see when one is forming. Its track may be unpredictable – maybe it will veer off at the last minute – but you still prepare for it. You still have to fortify yourself and be ready to survive. And such it is with these Hurricane sisters. They see the storms forming; it’s just a matter of preparing and surviving them.
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