Book Review: Pawleys Island by Dorothea Benton Frank

Dorothea Benton Frank

I just don’t understand.
Why in the world would a judge allow this to happen?
. . .he’s a lazy judge who prefers a clean desk over a long hearing.
– Dorothea Benton Frank, Pawleys Island

Pawleys Island by Dorothea Benton Frank is a delightful beach book with rare insight into the creepy mindset of a PAS father.  I was shocked to discover that it was published in 2005 which is long before I had ever heard about parental alienation syndrome (PAS) or protective mothers or domestic violence by proxy.

Ms. Frank’s writing style is a blend of her friends Pat Conroy and Anne Rivers Siddons.  I discovered her and fell in love with her books when I picked up Sullivan’s Island at a library book sale.  She writes about South Carolina’s Lowcountry.

Pawleys Island, SC is synonymous with hammocks.  It is where Abigail Thurmond’s family has owned a beach house for generations.  It is where Ms. Thurmond retreated after the deaths of her son and husband and her retirement from the practice of family law.  Ms. Thurmond is good friends with Huey Valentine, a gay art gallery and plantation owner.

Mr. Valentine hired Rebecca to frame artwork.  Rebecca has a Ph.D. in psychology, but she too has retreated to Pawleys Island to hide out from her abusive husband Nat at a friend’s condo.  Nat’s daddy owns the biggest car dealership in the state and has no idea that Nat has been embezzling, philandering with a dealership employee, and abusing Rebecca.

Mr. Valentine asks Ms. Thurmond to use her expertise to help Rebecca:

Rebecca was a nice woman ~ I was pretty sure about that.  Her husband was a philandering, lying, abusive, manipulative, asshole ~ I was pretty sure about that too.  But her timidity and insecurities were going to leave her in extraordinary pain for the rest of her life because nobody, including her, had been brave enough, and certainly not noble enough, to see the truth.

A man wants a divorce?  Big deal.  It happened every day of the week.  I say, go have your divorce, but for the love of God please try and be a gentleman about it?  Please?  Don’t manipulate the children like a puppet master and turn them against their own mother.  . .

I had discovered that sometimes painting was like exorcism.
It could rid me of demons and bad feelings about almost anything.
– Dorothea Benton Frank, Pawleys Island

Ms. Frank is brilliant in portraying the abuse dynamic and its impacts on women who are married to abusive, powerful men:

Nat slammed his napkin on the table and leaned forward to me across the table and said, “Look Becca.  I could have you put in jail for the things you did to the children.  And I might just still do it.  You’ll never know when, but one day you’ll go back [to] that slick little condo your friend loaned you and there will be a knock on your door.  It will be a nice policeman ready to take you into custody for child abuse and. . .”

Rebecca, of course, had not abused her children.  She lost custody because she relied on the legal assistance of a well-intentioned attorney who didn’t have expertise in family law and had a crush on her.

In real life, this would be the end of the story.  Ms. Frank, however, conjurs up a highly-skilled, retired attorney who takes on the case pro bono and cleans up the legal mess.  This attorney engages in intensive discovery that rarely takes place even for clients with exceedingly deep pockets.  The trial is pure farse, and the media’s interest is beyond fantasy.  While I’m sure most protective mothers would love to see this happen in real life, the plot is so divorced (pun intended) from reality that it lacks credibility and becomes annoying.

I am recommending the book highly because Ms. Frank has written about an issue that perpetually gets swept under the proverbial carpet.  I am cutting her slack about the plot because I don’t think anybody knows how to effectively represent a client experiencing domestic violence by proxy.  Most protective mothers need an escape from reality this summer.

The characters and lifestyle of Pawleys Island are a perfect escape into South Carolina’s Lowcountry.


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