Review: Palmetto Moon by Kim Boykin

palmetto moon by kim boykinFormat read: paperback provided by the author
Formats available: ebook, paperback
Genre: women’s fiction
Series: Lowcountry
Length: 320 pages
Publisher: Berkley
Date Released: August 5, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

June, 1947. Charleston is poised to celebrate the biggest wedding in high-society history, the joining of two of the oldest families in the city. Except the bride is nowhere to be found…

Unlike the rest of the debs she grew up with, Vada Hadley doesn’t see marrying Justin McLeod as a blessing—she sees it as a life sentence. So when she finds herself one day away from a wedding she doesn’t want, she’s left with no choice but to run away from the future her parents have so carefully planned for her.

In Round O, South Carolina, Vada finds independence in the unexpected friendships she forms at the boarding house where she stays, and a quiet yet fulfilling courtship with the local diner owner, Frank Darling. For the first time in her life, she finally feels like she’s where she’s meant to be. But when her dear friend Darby hunts her down, needing help, Vada will have to confront the life she gave up—and decide where her heart truly belongs.

My Review:

Palmetto Moon is a sweet, gentle and slow-building story about a young woman who seizes her life with her own two hands, no matter what it will cost her.

Vada Hadley’s transformation from obedient society child takes both courage and time; she is a child of extreme privilege in 1947. A young Southern woman in the years after World War II, a time when women in general were supposed to give up their jobs and independence and return to subservience to the men in their lives.

Vada has returned from college at Radcliffe College (Harvard’s college for women) with the idea that she should have some say in her own life. When her wealthy parents arrange her marriage to a young man in their class who philanders now, and plans to go right on doing it after their marriage, Vada rebels.

She doesn’t love Justin, and isn’t willing to be the kind of obedient wife and social ornament that her mother has been. She wants more. It takes her almost all the time she has, until the night before her misbegotten wedding, to pluck up her courage and run.

There’s a teaching position waiting for her in the small town of Round O, if she can just get there. The parents of her heart, her parents’ servants Rosa Lee and Desmond, risk their own jobs to help her get away.

In the little town of Round O, she hides who she is. Vada just plain hides from her previous life and hopes that no one will find her or betray the secret that she refuses to tell. It’s difficult to put ourselves in her shoes; the status of women has changed a lot since those post-war years. It’s not just that her father will track her down and force her to marry Justin, but that he has the legal right to threaten Rosa Lee and Desmond with the loss of their jobs and the threat that he will make sure his friends never employ them either. As a black couple, they have no practical recourse, especially in the South.

So Vada hides, and her father sends agents out to find her. Meanwhile, Vada makes a life of her own, a life that she finds precious and an independence that is rewarding. She makes friends, and finally falls in love.

But her would-be lover doesn’t know her truth, and makes serious mistakes in trying to do the best for her, whether it is a best that she wants or not. Frank Darling loves Vada so much that he has a difficult time letting Vada make her own mistakes. And in his attempt to fix things, he unintentionally takes away some of her agency.

All the secrets come out in one nasty confrontation, when Vada’s father and her erstwhile fiance roll into Round O to show off their wealth and privilege, and to expose Frank’s good-intentioned attempts to manipulate Vada.
Not that they are not manipulating her as well, but as they both say, they’ve never lied about it.

Vada is faced with a horrible choice; to return to her life of privilege out of spite and fear, or to take up the life that she has made for herself in Round O, with Frank.

Escape Rating B: Palmetto Moon is a slowly unwinding story. It takes place in the sweltering heat of a Lowcountry summer, and meanders into Vada and Frank’s life just like the sticky heat that surrounds Round O.

Although Vada (and Frank) do find true love, the story feels like it is about Vada’s search for independence and self-determination. At first, she is running away, from her parents, from society’s expectations, and also from herself.

While there are practical reasons for Vada’s desire to keep her background secret, her embracing of that secrecy feels like another version of running away. She is over 21, and while it would be difficult for her to separate completely from her parents, she can if she is willing to pay the price in loss of money, status and privilege.

Vada’s life is more “real” in Round O, but it is also based on a lie of omission. It isn’t until all the secrets come out that she has a chance at determining her own destiny.

The example of the awful choices that face her new friend Claire serve to point out just what she is giving up. Claire is a very young war widow with three small children, and her life choices consist of living in a boarding house and taking in mending; marrying one of the old bachelor boarders who has a pension but is an asshole; or finding a job as a menial with three children in tow. All her choices initially suck. That she gets lucky in the end doesn’t take away the initial suckage.

The way that Vada takes her life into her own hands was the perfect ending to the story. Although Frank wants to rescue her from the consequences of her own (and his) bad choices, he simply doesn’t need to. Vada rescues herself; as she should.

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