Beach House for Rent is the third novel in Mary Alice Monroe’s series set on Isle of Palms, near Charleston, South Carolina. The new book’s protagonists are Cara, the middle-aged office manager for her husband Brett’s ecotourism business, and Heather, a fragile, anxious young artist. Both women are grieving the loss of their mothers.
Cara and Brett have done a lot of work on the charming old beach cottage that Cara’s mother left them, and they need to find a tenant, counting on the rental income to cover their investment. Heather’s father, a wealthy banker, is willing to pay for the entire summer—the better to get her out of his own house in Charlotte, where he’s settling in with a new wife.
This setup offers fertile ground for conflict, anguish, and ultimately recovery, with a big dose of romance thrown in. Bo, a handsome carpenter, builds a deck on the cottage after Heather moves in, and he and Heather hit it off immediately. Cara faces severe financial stress as Brett’s business struggles, but that’s nothing to the crushing trauma of his sudden heart attack. Powerful emotions and interpersonal drama keep everything in turmoil as their stories unfold, though supportive women friends work to shepherd Cara and Heather through these life transitions.
As her fictional characters wrestle with the challenges of their lives and relationships, Monroe also lingers on the beauty and the challenges of Isle of Palms itself. It’s an exotic locale, especially seductive to outsiders like Heather. She’s working to capture its dunes and shore birds—both the migrating visitors and the year-rounders—in her art for postage stamps. “Light helps define a place,” she says to Bo. “Here the light has color. It changes throughout the day and it’s unpredictable. I’d never grow tired of living here.” Compatible environmental concerns—Bo works as a volunteer with injured birds, and Cara helps to protect the island’s endangered sea turtles and their eggs—suggest that these two have more in common even than their artistic endeavors.
Monroe is a master of descriptive detail, both of the island and the people on it—how they look and what they’re wearing and eating. Her intimate portraits of the women, with their ghosts and history, aim the narrative at readers interested in real people rather than the mystery, horror, fantasy, or crime on which so many other bestsellers rely.
Ralph Bowden, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina, has worked as an electrical engineer, history professor, home builder, alternative-energy consultant, and technical writer. A former resident of both Knoxville and Chattanooga, he lives in Cookeville.