Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Beyond Belles

Cathy Holton’s novel delivers another sharp look at the interior lives of aging debutantes

Four college roommates reunite some twenty years later for a beach trip where old wounds resurface, secrets are revealed, and decisions get made that will change their lives. Sound familiar? It should. This is not remotely a new plotline for so-called “women’s novels,” but Chattanooga resident Cathy Holton brings a depth, humor, and warmth to Beach Trip that make this novel more than just a beach read.

Photo of author, Cathy Holton | photo credit: Shannon FontaineHolton—who hit the Belle-lit world running in 2006 with Revenge of the Kudzu Debutantes—smoothly weaves the stories of Mel, Sara, Annie, and Lola as they come together and then separate after college. Mel is a writer living in New York who has “reached some kind of impasse in her life, an overwhelming place of stagnation and regret, not just in her professional life, but in her personal life, too,” writes Holton. “Once she had been confident and self-assured, but now she spent a lot of time second-guessing her choices.” Mel is estranged from her childhood friend, Sara. But Sara seems the most together of the four, though she has worries of her own: her son’s illness and its effects on her marriage. Annie is a rigid conservative who has regrets about everything from a college mistake to her marriage to the way she has raised her children: “Annie had not been a good mother. Age and experience had taught her this. She had been a competent mother. Her sons never went without clean clothes or expensive medical or dental care. They were provided with all the material possessions a late-twentieth-century child could possibly want. They attended church and good private schools and had grown up in a stable, conservative two-parent family. They had been raised in the structured environment so often touted by educators and television child psychologists. And that’s where Annie had gone wrong.” And Lola, the daughter of an Alabama governor, has been ruled first by her mother and now her husband and seems to defend herself by becoming a spacey New Ager, seeing auras and getting lost going to the bathroom.

At face value, the only thing that these women have in common is their past: roommates at a small liberal arts college in North Carolina. Still, what Holton does incredibly well is shift between the past and the present, giving out small details that show how rifts began and grew. By the end of the novel, several secrets are revealed—some which the readers will expect, others totally unexpected—but all are in keeping with the characters’ personalities. And by then, those characters have become achingly real, even if the plot they inhabit isn’t altogether new.