Karen White has set her books on Pawleys Island. In McClellanville. And on Folly Beach.
It’s the pluff mud that keeps pulling her back.
White, a New York Times best-selling author whose latest book was released this month, calls that strangely aromatic, shoe-sucking goo that distinguishes South Carolina beaches “the smell of home.”
“Somebody said, ‘You need to write about Hilton Head,’ and I said, ‘Why? That’s like writing about the Jersey Shore!’ ” White told a recent gathering of fans at the Irmo Branch Library. Instead, it’s the quaint South Carolina beaches that draw her – that, and the mud.
White’s latest book – and her first to be published in hardcover – takes place on Edisto Island, a setting that boasts venerable houses she says have not been “destroyed by storms or Sherman or Walmart.”
“The Time Between” centers on two sets of sisters – one set who escaped Hungary at the end of World War II with the help of one sister’s Nazi lover, and a younger set bound together by family tragedy.
The Gabor-like Helena and Bernadett Szarca have lived on Edisto Island for decades after escaping their war-torn country. The locals find the women exotic but welcome them, and the sisters immerse themselves in the life of the community until they suddenly and silently withdraw. Then Bernadett dies under mysterious circumstances, leaving Helena alone in their big, dark house.
Eleanor and Eve Murray grew up on Edisto Island, their lives seldom overlapping with those of the Szarca sisters, except in church or on Halloween, when the Szarcas handed out the best treats. When Eleanor was 17, she challenged fraidy-cat Eve – who was older and, Eleanor thinks, more beautiful – to climb one of a pair of treacherous trees. After Eve’s fall, Eleanor’s life is over – she has sentenced herself to caring for her sister, bound to a wheelchair and married to a man Eleanor loves.
Eleanor and Helena meet when Eleanor’s employer, Finn Beaufain, asks her whether she would be willing to earn a little extra money caring for Helena, his great-aunt. Eleanor, flustered and flummoxed by the offer from her enigmatic boss, agrees.
On the barrier island, Eleanor bonds with the crotchety Helena over their shared love of music. Eventually, she pries from Helena the secrets of the sisters’ shared past – secrets that help Eleanor understand how to save her own life from despair.
Critics say White, who lives in Atlanta, writes “grit lit” – tales of Southern women. It is a description she embraces, with its tales of love and romance, mystery and family tension, as well as redemptive endings.
“I don’t believe you should want to stick your head in an oven when you’re finished reading,” she cracks – the reason, she says, she’ll never be chosen for Oprah’s Book Club.
White does, however, boast three New York Times best sellers: “The Beach Trees,” “Sea Change” and “After the Rain.”
Later this year, she will release the last of three mysteries set in Charleston.