In her debut novel, Stiltsville, Susanna Daniel uses lyrical story-telling to relate profound truths about the attachments we form in life -- to people, to places, and to notions of who we are -- and how those attachments, formed in happy times, sustain us though the hard times. We meet the narrator Frances Ellerby in 1969. She is twenty-six years old, visiting Miami on a whim, having been invited for the weekend by Marse, whom she met just days before at a wedding. Marse takes Frances to Stiltsville, a unique retreat where houses rise up from the waters of Biscayne Bay, balanced on pilings. Frances is enchanted by the neighborhood hovering over water, and falls in love with the rhythm and beauty of Southern Florida. She begins a relationship with Dennis, whom she meets in Stiltsville, and finds a comfortable place within Marse's and Dennis' circle of family and friends. Shedding her job and connections in Atlanta, she moves to Florida, ready and willing to make a new life for herself.
The novel follows Frances through her courtship with Dennis, the early years of their marriage, the years that follow as they raise their only child, and the final years of their lives together. As time passes, people change, and Miami changes: Frances' child grows up; one close friend moves away; another finally marries; a man who used to be a boor becomes unexpectedly kind and caring; Dennis grows ill; the city becomes more dangerous and the neighborhoods more insular; and even Stiltsville is threatened. Frances comes to understand that while nothing is permanent, certain qualities of loyalty, commitment, and love -- qualities she learned about in relationships formed in Stiltsville -- remain strong. The best times for Frances always are the times spent out on the house in Stiltsville, busy hours with friends and family, heated moments of desire with Dennis, and quiet moments spent on her own. Even as life brings its usual accumulations of fear, worry, doubt, and grief, Frances' memories of those times spent at Stiltsville prove to be a fount of fortitude and endurance, drawn from again and again, and never failing.
Daniel's writing is lovely and unaffected, honest and open. Through her words, we experience the best of Southern Florida, the sky and the water, the fishing and boating, and the quiet nights spent out on the back deck, citronella candles burning to keep the mosquitoes away. Through Daniels' words, we become as comfortable with Frances as we are with an old friend; we watch Frances mature into love and marriage and parenthood; we watch her grow older, marked by time, but also wiser, staked by experience. Frances is recognizable as a very real person leading a very normal life full of genuine drama and sadness, happiness and joys. She is a woman who changes over the years, as do all people around her, and yet Frances also stays true to the person she was when we first met her, the twenty-six year old sitting on the porch of a stilt house, shading her eyes from the sun, her heart as open and unmarked as the waters spreading out around her. Stiltsville is a compelling portrait of a marriage, a sweet serenade to Southern Florida, and a moving account of a woman's life.