Review: Summer in the South by Cathy Holton
Author: Cathy Holton
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Release Date: May 24th, 2011
Source: Personal Copy
In six months Ava Dabrowski has suffered some major personal and professional setbacks, including the loss of her estranged mother. So when her old college friend Will Fraser calls and invites her to spend the summer in Woodburn, Tennessee with his aunts, Josephine and Fanny, free of charge, Ava jumps at the opportunity to get away, relax, and finally start working on the novel she's been wanting to write. When she first arrives, Southern charm, parties, and Toddy Time every afternoon at 5pm happily greet her; however, underneath the town's idyllic surface lies generations worth of secrets and feuds. Fascinated by the family's history and the many treasures stowed away at Woodburn Hall, Ava decides to dig a little deeper into the past in order to unravel an unsolved murder mystery. Along the way she finds the inspiration to not only begin her novel but also to confront her own demons from the past.
On the surface, Summer in the South is quite entertaining. Holton does an excellent job with her setting and descriptions of place with much emphasis placed on the small details of southern ways and traditions. While reading I felt completely transported to a lush, small town with friendly people, overgrown kudzu, and majestic historical houses.
Unfortunately, I can't say the same for the plot and characters. There were two alternating narratives, one being Ava's in the present day, and the other being the story of the Woodburn family in the 1920's. I have to say I cared much more for the historical parts of the novel than the present, and I really wish that Holton had expanded those sections more.
Most of the characters were very one dimensional and too easily typecast as "the rebel," "the gold digger," etc. Ava came across as a particularly unlikable character for me. Her past and present were a little too stereotypical (absent father, nomad childhood, issues with men) and many of her choices were rather selfish. For example, even after being repeatedly asked by the sweet old ladies, who are providing her with free room and board, to leave their family's skeletons buried, Ava decides to not only keep digging but to write her novel about the Woodburns' past. This makes for a somewhat compelling story, but doesn't say much for her moral character in my opinion.
Besides the forced love triangle storyline, Holton introduces too many plots that wind up going nowhere, and at times I felt like the novel didn't have a firm focus. Is it about Ava's writing, her relationship with the cousins Will and Jake, the identity of her father, or the history of the Woodburn family? Is this supposed to be a ghost story, a mystery, or a romance? I thought the writing was excellent and flowed well, but the slow pace of the plots really drug the overall narrative. While this was an easy read, I just felt like nothing happened for about 300 pages, and the close of the novel brought little to no advancement in terms of character development. I can't say I regret reading this book, but I think I expected too much. A fast and entertaining read, but don't look for anything deep.